Kidney Pain: Frequently Asked Questions
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.
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.
Your kidneys are sensitive organs and they can cause pain given the right circumstances. Kidney pain can be caused by:
- A urinary tract infection (UTI) that has backed up into the kidneys
- Trauma to the kidney, such as from a fight or from contact sports
- Kidney infection
- Kidney stones
- Bleeding in the kidneys
- Blood clots in the kidneys
- Hydronephrosis (fluid buildup)
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.
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.
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.
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
- Body aches and pains
- Unusual fatigue
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.