It is a simple fact of life that sooner or later you’ll experience unexplained pain in some part of your body. One of the most common and yet unclear places to feel pain is the abdomen, mainly because the abdominal cavity contains the majority of the body’s vital organs in relatively close proximity. A problem with any of these versatile organs in the abdomen can possibly be perceived as abdominal pain, so that’s why it’s important to determine where the pain is located more specifically. And pain felt on the left side of the abdomen is an example of one area that has several possible explanations.
Biology of the Abdomen
The abdomen is defined as the area of the body between the chest and the pelvis. In addition to the liver, pancreas, spleen, gallbladder, and kidneys, the abdominal cavity contains most of the gastrointestinal tract. Together, these elements represent large portions of a number of different body systems like the digestive, endocrine, and enteric nervous systems. Surrounded by a membrane called the peritoneum, the organs in the abdomen are tightly packed yet able to move somewhat freely due to the presence of serous fluid.
It is, of course, the fact that there are so many different organs and processes happening all in close proximity that makes pain in this region somewhat difficult to pinpoint. In the lower left side of the abdomen specifically, you can find the left kidney and ureter, the descending colon, and the sigmoid colon. Women additionally have two parts of their reproductive system: the left ovary and fallopian tube. Pain caused by one organ may sometimes feel like pain from another place, or sometimes a problem with one organ can affect another.
What Kind of Pain is it?
The first step in trying to identify a possible cause of your abdominal pain is to determine the type of pain you’re experiencing. Indeed, the difference between one type of pain and another can play an important role in determining the underlying cause. There is a difference, for example, between a sharp pain and a dull pain or between a widespread ache and one that is more localized. Likewise, the severity of pain is also an important factor; the kind of dull ache that comes from bloating may simply indicate constipation, whereas a sharp, stabbing pain could suggest a more serious problem.
Potential Causes of Lower Left Abdominal Pain
Most types of abdominal pain will be easily recognizable and explainable without needing the assistance of a doctor. After a night of eating a lot of food (maybe at Thanksgiving), for instance, your abdomen may feel achy and bloated, but it’s a normal reaction and isn’t a cause for concern. Yet a pain that is clearly located in the lower left abdomen could be caused by a variety of different conditions. Below are some common possible causes:
One of the most common causes of pain in the lower left abdomen is diverticulitis. In some people, small pouches called diverticula can form in the wall of the large intestine where the intestinal wall is weak. In a patient with diverticulitis, these pouches become inflamed and can cause abdominal pain as well as nausea, bloating, and fever.
Another fairly common cause of abdominal pain is constipation, a condition in which bowel movements are infrequent and/or difficult to pass. Since all stools eventually make their way to the sigmoid colon, this is the site where pain, discomfort, and bloating can be felt most acutely. Dehydration, a lower fiber diet, and low levels of physical activity can all make constipation more likely.
Another common cause of stomach pain is simply a buildup of gas that has been trapped in the digestive tract. There are many reasons gas can build up in this way, but it is often because of eating certain types of food, swallowing air by eating too quickly, or smoking on a regular basis. The body will eventually eliminate the gas through belching or flatulence, but if it builds up in the descending colon, it may be noticeable in the lower quadrant on the left side.
Also known as dyspepsia (or more familiarly as an upset stomach), indigestion is an extremely common experience that most people are familiar with. It comes from digestive acids that can accumulate after eating. It is usually felt higher up in the digestive tract, but it can also affect the lower left side.
For all humans, the enzyme lactase is necessary to digest the sugar lactose that is found in dairy products. Some people’s bodies, however, don’t produce sufficient quantities of lactase and therefore can’t digest lactose; this is called lactose intolerance, and it can cause a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms in the colon that can sometimes be felt in the lower left side. Bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain are all common symptoms.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD is a set of gastrointestinal diseases that involve significant inflammation anywhere along the digestive tract. The two most common examples of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. While neither example is necessarily limited to the lower left quadrant of the abdomen, the fact that they often affect either the small intestine or large intestine makes it possible to be felt in that area.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a relatively common chronic gastrointestinal condition that is characterized by a number of different symptoms, including abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. IBS is also sometimes referred to as spastic colon because of its tendency to cause problems in the colon.
Shingles is a viral disease that is caused by the same virus as chickenpox. Most people get infected as children and the virus lies dormant, but sometimes it reappears as a painful rash called shingles that tends to wrap around one side of the abdomen. Yet even before a rash appears, shingles can be felt as tenderness or pain on the skin or just under the skin.
In general, a hernia refers to an organ or tissue pushing outside of the body cavity where it is normally located. A common variety of hernia involves part of the intestines pushing through abdominal muscles and causing a small, painful bulge.
Sometimes calcium builds up in one of the kidneys and forms into a hardened, irregularly shaped kidney stone. Small stones usually pass out of the kidney and through the ureter where it is eventually evacuated through the urinary tract. Larger stones, however, can get lodged in the ureter and cause a blockage. A blockage like this can cause severe abdominal pain as well as painful urination or vomiting.
When to See a Doctor
Like many other pains you’ll experience in life, the location and severity can be very helpful in determining the cause. For most people, such pains are temporary and go away on their own. Sometimes, though, the pain can be overwhelming and requires medical attention from a gastroenterologist. If you have been experiencing pain in the lower left side of your abdomen and aren’t sure why, it may be time to get it checked out. At Cary Gastro, our staff is passionate about providing the best possible digestive health care. Please contact us today to request an appointment.