Ouch! What’s that pain in my side?
From gas to kidney stones, pain in your right or left side can have a variety of causes.
Maybe it started off small. Maybe it suddenly came out of nowhere. Whatever it is, you’re having pain in your side. But where did it come from? And should you be worried?
“Pain in your side or in your abdomen is a common complaint, and it’s a common reason for people to visit the emergency room,” explains Matthew Souder, MD, a general surgeon at Geisinger.
But the cause of your pain can range from harmless to serious, and it’s not always easy to pin down. Here are a few things to look out for.
Common causes of side pain
To help narrow down what's behind the pain, Dr. Souder suggests paying attention to a few specific factors.
“If you’re having pain in your side, keep track of it and see what aggravates it,” says Dr. Souder. “Does it hurt more when you stand or sit? When you breathe in or breathe out? Does it always hurt the same amount or is it off and on?”
Having severe pain, fever, swelling and tenderness of the abdomen, bloody stools, yellowing of the skin or persistent nausea and vomiting are nothing to brush off, though. See a doctor immediately for any of these symptoms.
Some common causes include:
Gas and constipation
The most common reason for the pain in your side is what you ate or drank. Gas or constipation is usually the biggest false alarm when it comes to abdominal pain. Each can cause fairly strong pain, but they usually aren’t harmful.
Gas and constipation pains can happen throughout your abdomen, and they can usually be identified by their inconsistency: it may come and go, and it will change depending on how you’re sitting or standing. The pain should subside within an hour or shortly after a bowel movement.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common condition that affects the large intestine by causing spasms. You can feel this pain throughout your belly area, but most people notice it in their lower abdomen.
“Cases of IBS can range anywhere from mild to severe, and it often runs in families,” notes Dr. Souder. “Factors like food, stress and hormones can trigger IBS, causing symptoms like cramps, pain, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.”
If you have IBS symptoms, talk to your doctor. They can diagnose whether you do have IBS and prescribe medication if necessary.
Stones aren’t just something you find outside — they may show up in your kidneys or your gallbladder, too.
Kidney stones are deposits of salt and minerals that can form and harden in your kidneys. Gallstones are deposits made from cholesterol and bile. Gallstone pain is usually felt on the right side, while kidney stones can be felt on either side.
“Kidney stones and gallstones can cause excruciating pain,” says Dr. Sounder. “You may pass kidney stones naturally, but in more severe cases, they may require surgery. Talk to your doctor if you have severe, radiating pain that lasts for more than a day.”
Pain (especially on your right side) paired with fever, vomiting and loss of appetite could indicate appendicitis, which requires emergency medical attention.
“One of the most serious reasons for abdominal pain is appendicitis,” adds Dr. Souder. “Appendicitis, or an infection of the appendix, can be a life-threatening condition. It’s considered a medical emergency, and surgery is required to remove the appendix.”
Urinary tract infection
If your side pain is accompanied by painful urination and needing to use the bathroom often, it might be a urinary tract infection (UTI). This bacterial infection is extremely common, especially in women, and it’s best to see a doctor for treatment.
Muscle or joint injuries
Strained muscles, arthritis or spinal injuries can all cause pain that spreads from your back to your side. If your pain is muscular, a combination of rest and light stretching exercises could help. If nothing seems to help, it’s time to talk to your doctor.
Did you have chickenpox as a kid? If so, side pain might be the first sign of a shingles infection. Despite the common myth, shingles affects people of all ages, causing intense pain on one side of the body and a blistering rash.
Early detection can help reduce your pain and the length of the infection — let your primary care provider know as soon as you suspect shingles, even if a rash hasn’t formed yet.
When to see a doctor
Pinpointing the cause of your discomfort starts with paying attention to your body. Whether it’s something as simple as gas or more serious like appendicitis, sharing what you’ve noticed with your doctor can help them come up with the best treatment plan for you.
“If the pain is severe or interrupting your ability to go about your day, get medical attention,” says Dr. Souder. “Even if it isn’t anything dangerous, it’s still better to be sure.”
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