What does right-side abdominal pain mean?

Gas, indigestion, and muscle strain are some common causes of abdominal pain on the right side

Right-side abdominal pain can be caused by a variety of medical conditions, and treatment depends on the diagnosis. Pinpointing the location of abdominal pain can help you and your healthcare provider determine the cause. While gas, indigestion, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may cause pain anywhere along the gastrointestinal tract, specific organs, such as the gallbladder and appendix, cause pain on the right side of your abdomen.

What causes right-side abdominal pain?

Many common causes of right-side abdominal pain are relatively harmless: gas, indigestion, or even a pulled abdominal muscle, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, some right-side abdominal pain may indicate a medical emergency.

The most common severe causes of right-side abdominal pain in the general population are kidney stones and appendicitis, according to Amy Lee, MD, RDN, chief medical officer at Lindora Clinic.

Abdominal pain on the right side can fall into several categories:

  • Musculoskeletal causes
  • Abdominal organ causes
  • Gastrointestinal causes
  • Gynecological causes

Musculoskeletal causes

Musculoskeletal pain on the lower or upper right quadrant of the stomach may feel like a sprain, strain, or pull, says Patrick Nuzzo, D.N., a doctor of naprapathy (a medical practice that involves the manipulation of connective tissue and adjoining structures) and the founder of the Southwest University of Naprapathic Medicine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dr. Nuzzo says musculoskeletal inflammation and pain are very common, and the nerves connecting the back and abdomen can transmit pain signals throughout the torso.

Abdominal muscles or ligaments attached to vertebrae may become tight or strained by exercise, improper lifting, or poor posture. An inguinal hernia can also cause this type of pain.

Internal organ issues

Inflammation or infection in the appendix, kidneys, or gallbladder can cause right-side abdominal pain.

  • Appendicitis: A painful bacterial infection of the appendix, which, when left untreated, can rupture and pose a severe health risk, Dr. Lee says.
  • A kidney stone in the right kidney causes belly pain that migrates as the stone moves through the urinary system.
  • Kidney infection of the right kidney causes an ache that extends from the right side to the flank and back.
  • Gallstones: Also called cholelithiasis, gallstones are hardened deposits of bile and cholesterol that cause right-side upper abdominal pain that Dr. Lee describes as a “slow ‘nagging’ pain.”
  • Urinary tract infection: UTIs cause pelvic pain and pain during urination.
  • Pancreatitis: Inflammation of the pancreas, which causes worsening upper abdominal pain that may radiate to the back.

Gastrointestinal causes of pain in the right abdomen

Inflammation or irritation in the lower digestive tract causes lower abdominal pain. The pain may be general or feel like it originates on the right or left side.

Gastrointestinal causes of lower abdominal pain include:

  • Gas: A common, harmless cause of lower abdominal pain that might occur more frequently after eating.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): A chronic gastrointestinal disorder that can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and excessive gas.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Chronic conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which cause intense abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloody stools.
  • Large bowel obstruction: A partial or complete blockage of the intestine that causes abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Cancer of the colon or small intestine, which often also causes a change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, and unintended weight loss.

Gynecological causes

Right-side abdominal pain can result from gynecological conditions involving inflammation or infection. Some cases, such as menstrual cramps, go away on their own within hours or days. Other gynecological conditions, such as endometriosis, can be more of a chronic problem and potentially lead to infertility if left untreated.

It’s important to know that gynecological conditions usually cause lower abdominal discomfort on both sides. However, it is possible for these conditions to cause lower right-side abdominal pain:

  • Menstrual cramps: Typically cause lower abdomen pain.
  • Ovarian cysts: Benign fluid-filled sacs that also cause pain during sex and abdominal heaviness or fullness.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): A long-term hormonal disorder that can cause irregular bleeding, ovarian cysts, and weight gain.
  • Ectopic pregnancy: A potentially life-threatening condition in which a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. Research shows that recurring ectopic pregnancies are more likely to occur on the right side.
  • Ovarian or uterine cancers: Serious conditions causing pain in the lower right-side abdomen in addition to vaginal bleeding, bloating, feeling full quickly, and pelvic pressure.
  • Ovarian torsion: A twisting of the ovary or fallopian tube, which also causes intense nausea and is a medical emergency.

When is right-side abdominal pain an emergency?

Abdominal pain is rarely a medical emergency. It often goes away on its own when caused by gas, menstrual cramps, or other temporary conditions. However, severe abdominal pain that does not go away could be a sign of a serious medical condition. For instance, abdominal pain linked to appendicitis or gallstones can lead to life-threatening ruptures if left unaddressed.

“As a rule of thumb, any abdominal symptom should be checked by a healthcare provider,” Dr. Nuzzo says.

Make an appointment to see a healthcare provider if:

  • Dull, nonspecific, or intermittent abdominal pain lasts for more than a week
  • Acute abdominal pain doesn’t go away after 24 to 48 hours
  • Severe abdominal pain is accompanied by other symptoms, such as diarrhea, vomiting, fevers, or painful urination
  • Your immune system is already weakened by a chronic condition or medications

Dr. Lee recommends emergency care if severe pain in the lower right-side abdomen or upper right abdomen is accompanied by the following symptoms of appendicitis or gallbladder issues:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Yellowed eyes
  • Itchy skin
  • Bloody stools

There are many possible causes of abdominal pain to consider. In general, it is better to be safe than sorry. If you’re worried about abdominal pain or accompanying symptoms, go to urgent care or call your medical provider. If the pain is severe enough to limit activity, go to the emergency room.

How is the cause of right-side abdominal pain diagnosed?

Remember, there are many causes of abdominal pain on the right side. A healthcare professional usually begins any diagnosis process with a physical examination and medical history.

Expect to answer questions such as:

  • Did your right abdominal pain start suddenly, or have you had chronic abdominal pain?
  • How often does the pain occur? Does it happen before or after eating?
  • What other symptoms accompany your abdominal pain?
  • Is there anything that makes the pain better or worse?
  • What are your dietary habits? What about alcohol, smoking, or drug use?
  • Which medications or supplements do you take?

Dr. Lee says a visit to urgent care or the emergency room will also include tests like:

  • Blood tests
  • A urine culture
  • X-rays
  • CT scan(s)

Depending on the results of these tests, your healthcare provider might also schedule an endoscopy, colonoscopy, or surgery.

How long does right-side abdominal pain last?

The duration of abdominal pain on the right side depends on the cause. It may last for minutes (gas), a few hours (menstrual or gallbladder pain), days (IBD or IBS flare-up), or remain until treatment kicks in (infection, torsion, or cancer). In any of these cases, right-side abdominal pain is not contagious.

How to stop right-side abdominal pain

Right-side abdominal pain treatments vary widely because there are so many possible causes. Sometimes, getting rid of right-sided belly pain requires time and avoiding gas- or IBS-triggering foods.

If your pain is severe or chronic, you need a healthcare provider to pinpoint a cause and determine how to treat pain in the right side of the abdomen. Treatments might include over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers, antibiotics, lifestyle changes, or even surgery.

Living with right-side abdominal pain

Living with frequent abdomen pain from gastrointestinal or gynecological inflammation can be difficult. Preventive treatments and lifestyle changes can help.

  • If you have an underlying gastrointestinal disorder, keep a food diary. Learning your food triggers can help you avoid unnecessary flare-ups.
  • If you have an underlying gynecological condition, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, gentle stretching, and heat therapy can help.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid or limit caffeine and alcohol, especially when in pain.

If you frequently experience abdominal pain due to referred pain from musculoskeletal inflammation, Dr. Nuzzo recommends deep breathing, hot Epsom salt baths, daily stretching, and good hydration.

See a doctor if severe right-side abdominal pain doesn’t stop within a couple of days

Right-side abdominal pain causes may include anything from gas or menstrual cramps to appendicitis or kidney stones. The cause of abdominal pain on the right side may resolve on its own without treatment. However, if pain in the right side of the abdomen continues, worsens, or is accompanied by fever, chills, yellowed eyes, itchy skin, or bloody stool, it could be a sign of a ruptured gallbladder or appendix and require emergency surgery. Only your healthcare provider can rule out infection or other serious health conditions. Visit your doctor to determine the best treatment for right-side abdominal pain.

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