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Is right rib pain a sign of something serious? When to call the doctor

If the pain is keeping you from working or enjoying your day, it may be time to see your doctor.
Female athlete. Side stitch - woman runner side cramps after running.
Sometimes pain under the rib is nothing more than a symptom of sleeping wrong or exercising too hard.Lifemoment / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

It’s the rare person who hasn’t self-diagnosed various aches and pains. A common complaint that sends us to Dr. Google for some answers is pain under the right ribs.

Luckily, that pain in the few inches of space right below your right ribs isn’t necessarily an indicator something is seriously wrong.

“Sometimes a pain under the rib is nothing more than you slept wrong or you exercised too hard,” said Dr. Gregory Cooper, a gastroenterologist at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. But if the pain is severe enough — or you are stressing yourself out enough — that you’re actually spending time online self-diagnosing, it may be time to get checked out, he noted.

The pain could potentially be something more serious like gallbladder issues. Or it could be “referred” pain from another area of the body. The key is to look at other symptoms you may be experiencing, the severity of the pain, whether it is intermittent or constant, or whether it goes away only to return at a later date, he added.

Here’s a brief rundown of some possible causes of that right-under-the-right-rib ache:

1. Gallbladder gone rogue

Your gallbladder (located on the right side of your body, beneath the liver) may be the cause of your misery. There’s a host of conditions plaguing this pear-shaped organ and you might be experiencing one of them.

The most likely culprit may be biliary colic. Pain is sudden and often gets worse. You usually feel that pain in the abdomen, right under the right ribs or the center of your abdomen. Pain may be “referred” or felt in the right shoulder blade. It might be fleeting, lasting just a few minutes, or it can last a few hours. You might feel nauseous and your abdomen may be tender for a day or so.

Another issue could be acute cholecystitis, or the gallbladder attack. Basically, your gallbladder has become inflamed — most likely due to a gallstone blocking the cystic duct. Symptoms include pain, fever, chills, nausea and vomiting. The pain is usually severe and steady.

You might also be suffering from acute pancreatitis, which is sometimes linked to gallstones.

2. Liver issues

An isolated ouch under your right ribs probably doesn’t mean your liver is diseased.

But this football-shaped organ is located on the right side of the body and is prone to numerous problems. Aside from pain, which can be dull or very severe, liver problems usually include some combination of jaundice, itchy skin, darkened urine, changes in stool color (including pale or tar-colored stool), fatigue and appetite loss, among others.

3. Gas problems

Gas in the intestines can cause real-deal pain for some folks. If you have a pain under your ribs from gas, you’re not alone. Your large intestine has two points under the rib cage where it bends. The right-sided bend is called the hepatic flexure. Gas can accumulate in this area, causing pain and tenderness, especially if you have IBS. Gas can accumulate on the left side, too. That’s called splenic flexure syndrome. Right-sided gas pain is often confused with gallstones.

4. Bruises, breaks and strains

Musculoskeletal issues can cause pain on your right side under your ribs. That pain can be caused by something as simple as lousy posture and sitting at your desk for too long. But if you’ve taken a fall or got hit during a sporting event, you could have a bruised rib, maybe even a fracture. For bruising or breaks, symptoms include pain when breathing in or coughing. The area may be tender or swollen. The rib cage contains intercostal muscles that allow it to move. If you’ve twisted your body forcefully or played 18-holes of golf without a warmup, you could have strained an intercostal muscle.

When to see a doctor

Searching the internet for answers on pain can make you more miserable and scared. So heed this advice: “If the pain is keeping you from working or just enjoying your day, then see your doctor,” says Dr. Amit Bhan, gastroenterologist at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

Don’t be embarrassed if the trip reveals a simple solution like buying a new mattress, stretching before exercise or eating more fiber.

“There’s nothing we like more than telling someone that everything is OK or finding something more serious in the earliest stages so treatment is most effective” he adds.