Kidney Pain: Frequently Asked Questions

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Older African American businessman standing at desk with back pain
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Do you have pain in your lower back? Are you wondering if it is muscular back pain or kidney pain? It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes, so here are some frequently asked kidney pain questions that may help you understand your symptoms and determine how to seek treatment.

Where are your kidneys and what do they do?

Most people are born with two kidneys, small bean-shaped organs in your lower back. One is located on each side of your spine. The kidneys have several roles, most importantly to filter toxins out of your blood, balance fluid levels in the body, and create urine to get rid of those toxins.

Many people live with only one kidney. People with one kidney can live a full and healthy life as long as the remaining kidney continues to work properly.

What causes kidney pain?

Your kidneys are sensitive organs and they can cause pain given the right circumstances. Kidney pain can be caused by:

  • Trauma to the kidney, such as from a fight or from contact sports
  • Kidney infection
  • Kidney stones
  • Bleeding in the kidneys

How can I tell the difference between back pain and kidney pain?

Since your kidneys are right by your back muscles, it can be hard to tell the difference between kidney pain and back pain. As both become severe, it is important to be able to tell the difference so you can see the right doctor. Here are some tips to help differentiate between the two:

  • Lower back pain is fairly common, while kidney pain isn’t.
  • Lower back pain tends to stay around the back area, although it may go down the sciatic nerve and into your leg. Kidney pain can radiate to the side, groin and abdomen.
  • Kidney pain is generally higher in the back, just below the rib cage.
  • Kidney pain is a “deeper” type of pain and is harder to pinpoint the area.
  • Kidney pain can be on one side only or both sides. Lower back pain tends to be in the middle, although it can radiate to the side.
  • If you have kidney pain, you may also have signs of an infection (blood in the urine, pain or burning on urinating, needing to urinate frequently). You may also have nausea and vomiting, have a fever, or feel dizzy. With back pain, you wouldn’t have those symptoms. Instead, you may feel weakness in your lower body, be incontinent (urinate when not expected), or have difficulty controlling your bowels.

What are kidney stones?

Kidney stones are small hard stones made of minerals that form in your kidney. Because the tubes in the kidneys are so tiny, stones irritate the kidney tissue as your body tries to get rid of them, and this can result in intense pain until the stone is passed.

Can kidney pain be a sign of cancer?

The early stages of kidney cancer do not cause pain. Pain only occurs when the tumor grows to the point that it puts pressure to nearby organs and tissue. The most common signs of kidney cancer include blood in the urine, pressure in your side or back, swollen ankles, high blood pressure, and unexplained weight loss, among others.

When should I see a doctor about my kidney pain?

Kidney pain that does not go away on its own or is so severe that it affects how you function should be checked by a doctor. Call your doctor or go to an urgent care clinic if you also have:

  • A recent or current urinary tract infection (UTI)
  • Blood in your urine
  • Cloudy or foul-smelling urine
  • Solid material (stones) in your urine
  • A fever

What can I do to help relieve kidney pain?

What you do to relieve kidney pain depends on what is causing it. Doctors often advise increasing your fluid intake to try to flush out what is causing the pain and to keep you hydrated at the same time. Analgesics (pain relievers) may be helpful, but check with your doctor because some types, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), can damage your kidneys further if you have kidney disease. You may be told to avoid these medications.

Your doctor will likely perform tests to determine why you have pain. These can include urine and blood tests; imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, a computed tomography (CT) scan; or a voiding cystourethrogram. For this last test, a nurse or technician injects a contrast dye that shows up in your bladder via x-ray and is tracked while you urinate. Treatment for key pain varies based on the underlying cause.

Some causes and treatments include:

  • Kidney infection: Oral antibiotics are typically effective, but in severe cases, you might be admitted to the hospital for intravenous (IV) antibiotics.
  • Kidney stones: Some stones are small enough to pass on their own, so you may be advised to drink up to 3 quarts of water per day to help move them along. Larger stones or ones that won’t move may require medical treatment. Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy is a procedure that uses ultrasound to break up stones. Surgery to remove the stone or to insert a stent (small tube) may also be necessary.
  • Kidney disease: Treatment for kidney disease depends on your individual type of disease. You will likely consult with a nephrologist (kidney specialist) to determine your kidney disease treatment plan.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 May 21
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.