Almost everyone has experienced abdominal pain at least one time in life. The pain in your left upper quadrant could have many potential causes. The good news is – upper abdominal pain may not be a cause for concern. In most cases, the pain may last only a few days and go without treatment.
However, in some other cases, pain in your left upper quadrant could signal something more serious, like kidney infections, or an enlarged spleen.
If you’re wondering where your left upper quadrant is, go to a mirror and mentally divide your tummy into 4 quadrants. The quadrant on the uppermost area below your ribs is your left upper quadrant (LUQ).
Your left upper quadrant houses several vital body organs including:
- Body of the pancreas
- Part of the Liver
- Adrenal glands
- Splenic flexure of the colon
- Gall bladder
- Part of the small intestine known as the duodenum
12 Common Causes of Left Upper Quadrant Pain
Since your left upper quadrant is home to many important abdominal organs, there are several factors that could trigger abdominal pain in your LUQ.
Conditions that could cause left upper quadrant pain include:
Your pancreas sits behind your stomach and beside the small intestine. It’s responsible for producing insulin, hormones, and some vital enzymes. When your pancreas becomes inflamed, it could cause pain in your left upper quadrant.
Excessive alcohol abuse, viral infections, using certain medications, and sudden immune system attacks on the pancreas can cause the pancreas to swell, and become inflamed. Gallstones could also block the pancreatic duct and cause acute pancreatitis.
Pain in your left upper quadrant is one of the major symptoms that accompany acute pancreatitis. Other symptoms include:
If you experience any of these symptoms along with pain in your upper abdomen, it’s essential you visit your doctor immediately.
The pain that accompanies acute pancreatitis usually occur immediately after drinking or eating food, or when you lie on your back. The abdominal pain may be severe and last for several days. In some cases, chronic pancreatitis can cause persistent pain and damage the pancreas permanently.
Treating Acute pancreatitis
Acute pancreatitis is usually treated by administering intravenous fluids, and certain pain medications to soothe the pain.
Your doctor will diagnose your symptoms to find out the underlying cause of your pancreatitis to determine the type of treatment you’ll require. For example, if your pancreatitis is caused by stones or pebbles obstructing your bile duct, you may require surgery.
Pro tip: If excessive alcohol abuse is the primary cause of your pancreatitis, ensure you make conscious efforts to reduce your alcohol intake, and make changes to your diet.
2. Enlarged spleen (Splenomegaly)
An enlarged spleen is usually a result of viral, parasitic, or bacterial infections, including liver cancer and Leukemia.
An enlarged spleen is usually not a cause for concern. It may be a sign your spleen is working correctly but has become overactive. An enlarged spleen can come without symptoms, and in some cases, your enlarged spleen may cause Anemia, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, frequent infections, and pain in the upper left quadrant.
The pain may be severe and spread to the left shoulder. If you experience intense pain when you take a deep breath, make sure you visit your doctor.
Treating an enlarged spleen
Treating an enlarged spleen will determine the underlying cause. For example, if a bacterial infection is responsible for your splenomegaly, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.
Usually, an enlarged spleen should return to normal after a few weeks, especially if there are no symptoms. In extreme cases, if your enlarged spleen is causing serious health problems, your doctor may recommend surgery (splenectomy).
A ruptured spleen can be life-threatening, so you must avoid contact sports and other activities that could rupture your spleen.
3. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common conditions that affect the large intestine. The symptoms of IBS usually include:
- Pain in the left upper quadrant
- Bloating and excess gas
To date, the exact cause of IBS remains a mystery. However, IBS has been linked with severe infection, nervous system abnormalities, and inflammation in the intestines.
Treating Irritable Bowel syndrome
Unfortunately, IBS has no cure. Your IBS may resolve on its own and re-emerge after several days.
Luckily, there are specific home treatments that can help manage the symptoms. Your doctor may recommend changes in your diet and ask you to avoid other foods that may trigger IBS.
Pneumonia is an infection that affects one or both of the lungs. The infection could be bacterial, viral, or fungal.
Pneumonia causes inflammation in the air sacs and fills the sacs with fluid and pus. When your air sacs have fluid in them, it could cause difficulty breathing, chest pain, coughing with phlegm, and abdominal pain in the upper left quadrant.
Pneumonia could be fatal, especially in infants, people with weak immune systems, and people above 65.
Other symptoms of pneumonia can include:
- Difficulty breathing
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux is a digestive disorder that causes the digestive fluid to flow back into the esophagus and irritate the esophageal lining.
GERD can also cause heartburn in the chest and pain in the upper abdomen. Other symptoms of GERD can include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chest pain
- Discomfort in your throat
Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to reduce the severity of your symptoms. These lifestyle changes can include:
- Losing excess weight
- Eating smaller meals
- Reducing alcohol intake
- Reducing your smoking
Pro tip: When lifestyle changes don’t work, your doctor may also prescribe antacids and prokinetics to help you manage the symptoms.
Gastritis is the inflammation of the protective lining in the stomach, and it is usually caused by a bacterial infection. The most common symptom of gastritis is a pain in the upper abdomen. The pain may be mild or severe and can worsen when you eat.
Drinking excess alcohol and using the strong medication can also trigger gastritis. Gastritis could also cause nausea and vomiting.
Gastroparesis is a digestive condition that affects the movement of your stomach muscles and prevents your stomach from emptying its contents at the right time.
This condition is usually caused by nerve damage, diabetes, certain cancers, or use of certain medications like opioid painkillers.
Symptoms of gastroparesis usually include:
- Pain in the upper left side of the abdomen
- Vomiting undigested food
- Loss of appetite
- Unexpected weight loss.
To treat gastroparesis, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, including changes in your diet, and medications that manage nausea and vomiting.
6. Peptic ulcer
When there’s an open sore on either side of your stomach’s lining, you have a peptic ulcer. A peptic ulcer is usually caused by the bacteria (H. pylori) or excessive use of strong pain killers like aspirin.
The primary symptom of a peptic ulcer is a burning sensation on the left side of your upper abdomen. Other symptoms of a peptic ulcer can include:
- Feeling of fullness
- Intolerance of fatty foods
Treating peptic ulcer
Your doctor may recommend medications that kill the bacteria causing the ulcer. Certain medications heal up open sores and protect the lining of the stomach from injury.
Some particular types of cancers can cause pain in your upper left quadrant, especially cancers of organs in your abdomen. Cancers that can cause pain in your LUQ to include:
- Liver Cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Stomach cancer
- gallbladder cancer
- Bile duct cancer
Depending on the type of cancer, the pain may affect just a section of your stomach, or it may spread throughout your abdomen.
Along with severe pain in your upper abdomen, other symptoms that accompany cancer include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Jaundice (Yellowing of the skin)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blood in your urine or stool
Treatment for cancer
If a specific cancer is responsible for your cancer, treating cancer will reduce the pain in your LUQ. There are a few options that could treat your cancer. Some treatment options available include:
- Hormone therapy
- Radiation therapy
- Stem cell transplant
Abdominal pain during pregnancy is very common. This is as a result of your body trying to make room in your abdomen to grow your baby.
However, it could also be a result of ectopic pregnancy – Here, the fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. The pain in your upper abdominal pain during pregnancy could also be as a result of:
- Placental abruption
- Stomach flu
- Urinary infection
- Kidney Stones
- Food sensitivity or allergy
- gas and constipation
- Braxton-Hicks contractions
9. Gallstones and other gallbladder complications
Your gallbladder is located just below your liver and below your ribs. Gallstones are small deposits of matter that block your gallbladder ducts. When your gallbladder is blocked, the pain in your stomach may become unbearable. Sometimes, the pain can radiate to your chest and shoulders.
Other symptoms of gallbladder complications include:
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Chronic diarrhea
- light-colored stools
- Darkly colored urine
To treat your gallstones, your doctor will administer medications that will help in dissolving the gallstones. However, it may take months or even years for the gallstones to fully disintegrate.
Another available option is surgery. If you have recurring gallstones, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove your gallbladder.
Pyelonephritis is a condition when your kidney becomes inflamed, usually due to a bacterial infection. Symptoms of pyelonephritis include:
- Severe pain in the left upper abdomen
- Frequent Urination
- Burning sensation during urination
11. Polycystic kidney disease (PKD)
PKD is an inherited disorder in which painful cyst clusters develop on your kidneys. The cysts may be big or small, and damage the function of your kidneys.
Symptoms of polycystic kidney disease include:
- Abdominal pain
- High blood pressure
- Blood in the urine
- Kidney stones
- Kidney failure
- Urinary tract infections
12. Food poisoning
When you eat foods that have been contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or toxins, you may have food poisoning. The most common symptom of food poisoning is a pain in the abdomen.
Other symptoms of food poisoning include:
When should you see a doctor for abdominal pain?
Luckily, most cases of abdominal pain aren’t serious. In fact, you can manage mild abdominal pain by placing an ice pack on your LUQ or by taking some mild pain relievers.
Pro tip: Taking strong pain reliefs like Aspirin or Ibuprofen may worsen stomach pain.
Other times, pain in your upper left quadrant can be life-threatening. If the pain in your left upper quadrant persists for more than a few days, you should visit your doctor immediately.
Your doctor will diagnose your symptoms, and try and find out the underlying cause of the abdominal pain. If your abdominal pain comes with any of these symptoms, ensure you seek emergency medical attention. The symptoms that could signal something serious include:
- Extreme pain in your abdomen
- Persistent nausea or vomiting
- Unexpected weight loss
- Abdominal sweating
- Bloody stools