The words pain below the rib cage can mean several different things, and it’s important to make a distinction. In this article, we’ll consider the words pain below the rib cage to mean pain in the physical area often called the stomach or abdomen. We will not cover possibilities like heart disease and lung cancer, which occur inside the rib cage in the upper part of the chest. Technically speaking, you could say these disorders cause pain below the rib cage too, but that’s not the meaning we’ll employ here.
The area below the rib cage that’s generally described as the stomach or the “belly” is packed with organs, tissues and muscles. So when you have discomfort in this area, it might be caused by one of dozens of possibilities. Stomach pain under the ribs may simply result from indigestion: a dose of antacids might be all you need to feel better. On the other hand, stomach pain under the rib cage could be a symptom of something serious like an ulcer or stomach cancer. Fortunately, stomach cancer is relatively rare today in the U.S. and many other countries. But hundreds of thousands of people certainly suffer from painful stomach ulcers.
Gallbladder problems are likely to cause pain below the rib cage. The most common gallbladder disorders are gallstones and gallbladder attacks, which typically cause abdominal distress but may also radiate to the right shoulder or even the middle of the upper back. Gallbladder attacks often occur after you’ve eaten a big meal – especially one that includes a lot of fat – because your gallbladder can’t process an overload of cholesterol. It becomes inflamed and irritated, which is the cause of the pain.
Pancreatitis is another possible cause of pain below the rib cage. Your pancreas is also involved in digestion, so you’ll have pain in the upper abdomen if your pancreas isn’t functioning properly.
There are many digestive problems involving the colon and intestines: a colon infection, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or one of several other colon-related problems. Unfortunately, colon cancer is a possibility too.
If you have pain below the rib cage at the same time you have pain in the back or sides, it could be caused by kidney stones. Generally, kidney stone pain occurs in the back, but sometimes it radiates to the abdomen and even down into the upper thighs.
Injury or illness affecting the spine can cause pain below the rib cage too. If you damage a disc, for instance, you may feel pain all the way around to the front of your body. Pain sometimes travels along the nerve pathways, so it’s possible to “feel” pain away from the actual source of the problem. This is known as referred pain. When this happens, you usually feel numbness, tingling, and a “pins and needles” sensation.
Strained muscle and ligaments can also be a source of pain in the stomach area. This can be caused by exercising too much or not warming up enough before you exercise. There’s also a condition called a side stitch which is characterized by sharp pain under the rib cage. A side stitch, as the name implies, often happens on one side or the other. The medical name for this condition is exercise related transient abdominal pain (ETAP). It has not been scientifically established why so many people get a side stitch during exercise, but it certainly can be painful.
Many of the problems mentioned above can happen in the stomach area, or on either side. But if you have pain on the right side under the ribcage, it’s possible you have liver trouble. The liver is situated on the right side under the ribs.
In conclusion, this article has been intended briefly list and describe some of the possible causes of pain under the rib cage. But always remember that only a doctor is qualified to make a diagnosis. Pain is often just one symptom that something is wrong. Your doctor will need to evaluate all your symptoms to help him or her come up with the answers you need to get relief.
by Neal Kennedy