What Does It Mean When You Feel Pain Under Left Ribs?

By Elaine Belcher |
|5 min read

An average person has a total of 24 ribs equally distributed on either side of the rib cage, 12 on the right and 12 on the left. They function to protect the underlying organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, and stomach. The ribs are also useful in breathing as they either increase or decrease the volume of the chest cavity depending on muscle movements of the intercostal muscles.

What Causes Pain on the Left Side Under Ribs?

There are quite a number of conditions that may cause pain in your ribs. The organs enclosed by left ribs include the heart, left lung, left kidney, spleen, pancreas, and part of the stomach. Injury to or inflammation of these organs may cause a stabbing pain in your left side. Below are brief descriptions of what might have happened:

1. Rib fracture

The ribs are very delicate and are prone to fracture in the event of an accident. Anatomically, the lower ribs (numbers 11 and 12) are referred to as floating ribs because they are not attached to the other ribs or to the sternum. They are the most vulnerable when it comes to rib fractures. Their damage could cause excruciating pain on the left side.

2. Costochondritis

The name is formed from three keywords and may sound complex, though it is a simple disease. The meanings of the three words from which it is derived are coastal for ribs, chondral for cartilage, and the suffix -itis for inflammation. Hence, costochondritis is the inflammation of the ribs, which are composed of cartilage.

Costochondritis can be caused by three major underlying conditions: infections, direct trauma to the ribs, and arthritis. The most common manifestation is a sharp pain on the left side (if the left ribs are involved) that worsens when you a cough, sneeze or breathe heavily.

3. Pancreatitis

As mentioned, the suffix -itis signifies inflammation. Pancreatitis, therefore, refers to inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a gland located just beneath the stomach and has two functions that can be broadly classified as secretion of digestive enzymes and juices, and secretion of hormones such as insulin and glucagon. Pancreatitis can either be acute or chronic.

The acute form manifests with a sharp stabbing pain in the left side and is usually aggravated by alcohol abuse. It is a medical emergency with a high mortality rate if not managed well. The chronic form manifests with intermittent pain developing over a long period of time. It can be due to chronic infections, injuries, or gallstones.

4. Gastritis

Gastritis is the inflammation of the stomach lining/epithelium. The most common cause is the use of Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). In the stomach, the epithelium is maintained by an endogenous autacoid called prostaglandin. NSAIDs function by inhibiting the synthesis of this autacoid. It predominantly affects children and the elderly whose gastro-intestinal epithelial turnover is slow or not well established.

Other causes of gastritis include alcohol abuse and bacterial infections, particularly with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, commonly abbreviated as H. pylori. Like as with all cases of inflammation, gastritis presents with so much pain in left side under ribs that it may be likened to stomach ulcers.

5. Pericarditis

The pericardium is a double layer of membrane that encloses the heart. It is filled with pericardial fluid, which lubricates the heart. Sometimes it gets inflamed secondary to infections, certain medications, and injury to the heart. The condition where the pericardium is inflamed is called pericarditis. Since the heart is largely located on the left side of the chest wall, pericarditis usually presents with a sharp pain on the left side.

Various Treatments for Pain Under a Left Rib

On a general scale, the treatment for pain in the left side is largely dependent on the underlying cause, for instance:

  • For digestive issues

H. pylori, the organism most likely to cause gastritis, is transmitted through the fecal-oral route. This means that dietary hygiene should be well adhered to as a control mechanism for this organism.

Consumption of fatty foods also predisposes you to chronic pancreatitis, which is usually due to fatty changes such as fat necrosis in the abdominal cavity. Alcohol abuse also predisposes you to gastritis, pancreatitis, and liver problems. In a nutshell, being wary of what you consume is a good strategy for staying safe from pain on the left side under ribs related to digestive issues.

  • For cardiac conditions

Conditions that lead to pericarditis directly impact the functional capabilities of the heart. As a result, surgery could be the surest strategy to relieve the stress in the heart, eliminate the inflammation of the pericardium, and preserve life.

  • For inflammation and infection

Pain relievers and anti-inflammatory agents are helpful in managing swelling, redness, pain, and loss of function that usually follows inflammation.

Antibiotics could also be used to manage bacterial infections that commonly cause gastritis.

  • For fractured ribs

Cold compress and basic life support techniques can help minimize pain and improve circulation in fractured ribs. Certain herbs also help in the managing pain. A classic example is arnica, which is an ointment usually placed under the ribs topically on the chest wall to ease pain and inflammation.


Pain on the left side of the ribs sometimes is a serious condition that should not be overlooked owing to the fact that many vital organs are enclosed by the ribs. You should seek immediate medical attention so that your condition can be attended to by professional.



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