How to identify upper abdominal pain

Updated March 23, 2017

When you try to identify and diagnose upper abdominal pain, you'll first need to know the layout of the land. "Upper abdomen" refers to the triangle-shaped area between the base of the sternum and the navel, and bordered by the ribcage. For reference and diagnostic purposes, the upper abdomen is divided into three regions: left-upper quadrant, right-upper quadrant and the epigastric area. Organs of the upper abdomen include the stomach, aorta, liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, kidneys and intestines. Pain can be acute, recurrent, chronic or referred. A consultation with your doctor can confirm your suspicions and provide pain relief.

Note the specific location of your upper abdominal pain. See if you can pinpoint the area or define with your hands the entire physical area of the pain.

Define and rank the severity of the pain. Try to distinguish if the pain is sharp, gnawing, cramping or dull. Tell your doctor if the pain has been chronic, is new or if it's recurrent. Rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10.

Feel for pain in the left-upper quadrant. This area is above and to your left of the navel. This could mean problems with your stomach or spleen. Bowel cancer, ruptured aorta and kidney stones also occur in this area.

Palpate for pain in the epigastric area, the centre area just below the base of the sternum. Pain here can indicate problems with the stomach or pancreas. Indigestion and gastro-oseophageal reflux disease, or GERD, are common diagnoses.

Feel the right-upper quadrant, the area on the right side above the navel and bordered by the ribcage. Pain here could indicate liver or gallbladder problems. Kidney stones, hepatitis, right lower lobe pneumonia or constipation are other examples of diagnoses for pain here.

Tell your doctor if you have had recent abdominal surgery. It's possible that your pain is related to adhesions (internal tissue scarring).

Tell your doctor if you are taking antibiotics or other medications that can cause abdominal pain. Some antibiotics, notably the cephalosporins and tetracycline, can cause pain in the upper abdomen.

Check if the pain is over the whole upper abdominal area and accompanied by bloated and upset stomach. That could indicate coeliac disease, an intestinal disorder where people cannot tolerate gluten.

Notice if the pain starts in the upper-right abdominal quadrant and then shifts to your back, and worsens when you eat fatty or greasy foods. This could indicate gallstones or gallbladder infection.

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About the Author

Erin Moseley is an advocate for science education. Since 1985, she has written numerous technical, user and training manuals for major corporations, public agencies and universities. She holds a Bachelor of Science in geology.