What Causes Pain under the Left Rib after Eating?

Pain under the Left Rib after eating
Credit: iStock.com/DeanDrobot

Pain under the left rib after eating may be a very familiar and intensely frustrating scenario for you. Perhaps you’ve just finished a delicious meal, when dark clouds appear on the horizon in the form of searing pain underneath your left rib cage.

While there are many potential causes, such as broken ribs or symptoms of a stroke specifically, there are many gastrointestinal reasons why this might be occurring, including acid reflux (heartburn), indigestion, an ulcer, allergic reaction, or even gastritis.

It’s important to understand why this condition occurs in certain people in order to treat it effectively. With the right series of changes to one’s lifestyle, pain under the left rib after eating can become a distant memory.

What Causes Pain under the Left Rib Cage after Eating?

1. Acid Reflux (Heartburn)

Acid reflux, also known as heartburn, is often experienced as a burning sensation in your chest, including the rib cage, and the back of your neck, which occurs after your meal. The cause of heartburn is due to food, mixed with stomach acids, trying to force its way up your throat.

Heartburn can be caused by a malfunction of your lower esophageal sphincter (LES)—that’s the muscle that acts as one-way valve to let food down and prevent stomach acids from coming back up.

Pain in the chest or left rib from heartburn can be treated in a number of ways, including changing your diet and/or taking medication. Overeating is the simplest trigger for acid reflux, so watching portion size can be beneficial.

2. Indigestion

This is a very common reason why people feel discomfort and right or left side pain under their ribs. Other symptoms include a burning sensation and bloating in the upper abdomen.

Indigestion could be caused by eating too quickly, diet, or smoking. Other causes include health problems such as gallstones or a blockage within your intestines.

For indigestion, changing your diet and learning to manage stress might be the best treatment options.

3. Peptic Ulcers

A sore on the lining of your digestive tract is known as a peptic ulcer. These are further subdivided into gastric ulcers, which happen inside your stomach, and duodenal ulcers, which occur on the inside of your small intestine.

Ulcers are caused by bacteria, regular use of pain medicine, and other medications. Excessive acid production as a result of Zollinger-Ellison syndrome also causes ulcers.

It’s a common misconception that spicy foods cause ulcers; while they can make ulcers more painful, they are not a cause.

The symptoms of an ulcer include burning stomach pain in the middle or upper stomach (which may present as pain on the left side under the rib cage), bloating, nausea or vomiting, and heartburn. Stomach acid often makes the pain worse, although it should be noted that 75% percent of people with ulcers are asymptomatic (have no symptoms).

Ulcers can be treated by taking proton pump inhibitors (PPI), which reduce acid in order to allow the ulcer to heal. If you are suffering from a bacterial infection, then antibiotics may be prescribed.

4. Severe Allergic Reaction (Anaphylaxis)

A sharp pain under your left rib cage after eating could also be caused by allergic reaction, also known as anaphylaxis. Other symptoms of an allergic reaction include difficulty breathing, vomiting, skin irritation, increased heart rate, hives, wheezing and a drop in blood pressure.

The treatment for severe allergic reaction is typically an injection of epinephrine. If possible, the best way of lowering the risk is to avoid the known things that can cause your allergies.

5. Gastritis

A number of conditions that cause inflammation of the lining of the stomach are collectively grouped under gastritis. Most often, the same bacteria that cause stomach ulcers are what cause gastritis, as well as anything else (alcohol, painkillers, and certain foods) that damages the stomach lining.

Gastritis is also grouped into acute cases, which occur suddenly, or chronic cases that appear slowly over time. The symptoms of gastritis include burning pain in the upper abdomen, indigestion, nausea, and vomiting.

Gastritis is rarely serious, and can often be improved through treatment that may include antacids, PPI’s, antibiotics, and even B12 vitamin shots. You might also consider adopting a special diet for gastritis that excludes fatty or spicy foods that are difficult to digest.

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Lifestyle Changes for Pain under the Left Rib Cage after Eating 

Overall, the best initial solution to pain under the left rib comes down to making appropriate lifestyle changes. Reducing the quantity of food eaten, the size of meals, and the specific foods being consumed can bring results, as can the elimination of foods that may be irritating your stomach.

Excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco products, or painkillers (such as Advil, NSAIDs, etc.) should also be curbed. Another simple change might involve your habit of lying down after a meal. This is inadvisable, as it makes it easier for stomach acids to wash back up without the benefit of gravity.

Stress is a well-documented trigger for pain in the ribs, so a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and other activities designed to mitigate and reduce stress will be beneficial. Being faithful to dedicated lifestyle changes for a prolonged period of time is important before considering other more invasive or disruptive solutions.

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When to Seek Medical Help

If you have any symptoms of the aforementioned conditions, it is time to seek medical help. A doctor will ask questions about your over-the-counter or prescription drug use and they may also be able to administer blood or breath tests to see if harmful bacteria, like H. pylori, are present in your digestive tract.

An upper endoscopy is a procedure where the doctor inserts a small, lighted tube through your throat to look for any abnormalities occurring in your stomach.

Surgery may be necessary if an ulcer has created a hole, or serious bleeding in the stomach.

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Pain under the Left Rib after Eating Is Manageable

If you are experiencing pain under the left rib after eating, you don’t need to panic. You could be suffering from acid reflux (heartburn), indigestion, an ulcer, allergic reaction, or even gastritis.

It’s even possible that some of these symptoms may be co-occurring at the same time. Taking an inventory of your symptoms is key in treatment. If possible, making lifestyle changes is preferential to more invasive or disruptive medical procedures like surgery.

Whatever the issue is, it’s key to recognize it early and avoid delaying treatment, thus allowing you to enjoy your meals free from any further pain or discomfort. One day, your stomach—as well as your appetite—will thank you.

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