Have you ever felt a dull, aching pain in your back just under your ribs? Did the pain seem to radiate to your abdomen or down to your groin area? If so, you may have experienced kidney pain. Kidney pain can be alarming and concerning, but learning more about where it's felt and what causes it can help you identify it. In this article, we’ll cover the location and radiation of kidney pain, what causes it, other related symptoms, and when you should see a doctor.
Where Kidney Pain is Felt
Kidney pain is most commonly felt in the area where the kidneys are located, which is in your middle to upper back on either side of your spine, just underneath your ribcage. You have two kidneys, one on each side, that sit against your back muscles behind your abdominal cavity.
When you experience kidney pain, it is usually felt as a dull ache or pressure in your back under your ribs, on one or both sides. The pain may remain in that area if it's mild, or it can radiate around to the abdomen, sides, and even down to the groin region.
Kidney pain can vary from a mild discomfort to very severe pain. It is often described as a persistent, dull ache that gets worse if you press on the area gently. Sudden, acute pain could indicate passing a kidney stone. Kidney pain usually feels deeper than regular back muscle pain.
An important distinguishing factor between kidney pain and regular back pain is the location. Back pain from muscular strain or injury is more commonly lower in the back, such as the lumbar region. Kidney pain occurs higher up along the spine under the ribs. Recognizing this difference in location can help identify that the pain may be coming from your kidneys rather than the muscles or spine.
Common Causes of Kidney Pain
There are a number of health conditions that can cause pain and discomfort in the kidneys. Here are some of the most common causes of kidney pain:
One of the most well-known causes of kidney pain is the development of kidney stones. Kidney stones form when minerals and waste products in the urine crystallize into small clumps. These stones can develop in the kidneys and cause pain as they grow larger.
The most common sign of kidney stones is extreme pain that starts suddenly when a stone moves from the kidney down through the urinary tract. The pain often radiates from the back and sides to the lower abdomen and groin. This severe, cramping pain is often described as one of the most painful sensations felt.
Small kidney stones may pass through the urinary tract on their own, but larger ones can become lodged and block urine flow. This blockage causes severe pain and discomfort. Passing a kidney stone usually resolves the pain.
Urinary Tract Infections
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are another very common cause of kidney pain, especially in women. UTIs occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract and multiply, inflaming the bladder and kidneys. The infection can cause pain, a frequent and urgent need to urinate, foul-smelling urine, and fever or chills if it reaches the kidneys.
A UTI that has spread to the kidneys is called pyelonephritis, and causes symptoms of kidney pain or tenderness in the back or side, along with nausea, vomiting, and fever. Bacterial UTIs are normally treated quickly and effectively with antibiotic medications.
Similar to a UTI, a kidney infection also involves bacteria entering the kidneys and multiplying. This causes inflammation and swelling that leads to dull, aching pain in the back and sides, often accompanied by fever and nausea.
Kidney infections require prompt medical treatment with antibiotics, and sometimes hospitalization for intravenous antibiotics, in order to avoid complications like sepsis or kidney damage.
Polycystic Kidney Disease
Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is an inherited disorder that causes numerous cysts full of fluid to grow inside the kidneys. These cysts enlarge over time and displace healthy kidney tissue, which causes kidney damage and loss of function.
Large cysts pressing on kidney tissue is one cause of the pain and discomfort associated with PKD. The condition also causes back and side pain, headaches, blood in the urine, and high blood pressure. PKD is a progressive disease that often leads to kidney failure.
Cancer that originates in the kidneys, called renal cell carcinoma, can also lead to kidney pain. Tumors that grow in the kidneys put pressure on nearby tissue, causing a dull ache or pain in the back and sides. Other symptoms may include blood in the urine, fever, weight loss, and fatigue.
Catching kidney cancer early is important, as the tumors can grow quite large before being detected. Treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted drug therapy.
Hydronephrosis refers to swelling in one or both kidneys that results from a backup of urine. This can happen when there is a blockage or obstruction preventing urine from draining out of the kidneys properly.
The swelling and pressure on the kidneys causes a dull, throbbing pain in the back and sides. It may be felt constantly or come and go. Other symptoms can include pain or burning during urination, nausea, fever, and vomiting.
Some common causes of hydronephrosis include kidney stones, tumors, pregnancy, and congenital abnormalities in the urinary tract structures. Hydronephrosis is usually treated by addressing the underlying cause of the blockage.
Other Symptoms Associated with Kidney Pain
In addition to back and side pain, kidney issues often cause other symptoms that can help identify the source of the problem. These may include:
Pain or burning during urination - Kidney infections, STIs, and urinary tract problems can cause a burning sensation when peeing.
Cloudy or foul-smelling urine - Bacteria in the urine often causes unusual odor or appearance.
Blood in the urine (hematuria) - Kidney stones, injury, UTI, cancer, or autoimmune disease can cause blood in the urine.
Nausea and vomiting - Kidney infections, urinary blockages, and severe pain can cause nausea.
Fever - Infections of the kidney often lead to an elevated body temperature or fever.
Fatigue - Impaired kidney function reduces red blood cell production causing tiredness and weakness.
Itchy skin - Buildup of waste in the blood causes severe itching symptoms.
Swollen feet/ankles - Kidney disease leads to fluid retention and swelling in the lower extremities.
Decreased or excessive urination - Damaged kidneys cause abnormal urinary frequency and volume.
Abdominal pain - Kidney disease can refer pain to the abdomen.
Chest pain - Some kidney conditions cause pain that radiates up to the chest.
Being aware of these associated symptoms can help identify that kidney issues may be the cause of back and side pain. Seeking prompt medical attention for evaluation is important.
When to See a Doctor About Kidney Pain
Mild kidney pain that goes away quickly may not require medical evaluation. However, if you experience any of the following, it is important to see a doctor promptly:
- Severe pain that does not improve with over-the-counter pain medication
- Pain accompanied by fever, nausea, or vomiting
- Pain along with symptoms like blood in the urine or abnormal urination
- Pain that lasts more than a day or keeps recurring
- Pain that radiates to the groin or abdomen
- Pain with any signs of infection like foul-smelling urine
Severe or persistent kidney pain should not be ignored, as it can signify a serious underlying condition. Some reasons to seek urgent medical care include:
- Kidney infections that can quickly spread to the bloodstream
- Blockages that cause a dangerous backup of urine
- Large kidney stones that cannot pass on their own
- Cancerous tumors that need rapid treatment
- Hydronephrosis causing kidney swelling and damage
When you see a doctor for kidney pain, they will perform a physical exam and use diagnostic tests to check for potential causes:
- Urinalysis - Checks for blood, bacteria, or other abnormalities
- Blood tests - Assess kidney function and look for signs of infection
- Imaging tests - CT scans, ultrasounds, or MRIs to visualize the kidneys
- Cystoscopy - Inserts a tiny camera into the urethra and bladder
Based on the test results, the doctor will determine the appropriate treatment plan. This may include pain medication, antibiotics for infection, surgery to remove blockages, or other interventions to address the underlying kidney issue.
Getting an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment can help resolve kidney pain and prevent complications from kidney disease. Ignoring severe symptoms can potentially lead to permanent damage and kidney failure.
Home Remedies to Relieve Kidney Pain
For mild to moderate kidney pain, you can try some home remedies while waiting to see a doctor:
Drink plenty of fluids - Staying hydrated helps flush out your kidneys and reduce strain. Water, herbal tea, and broth are good choices.
Apply heat - Placing a heating pad or hot water bottle over the area can help relax the muscles and reduce spasms.
Take over-the-counter pain relievers - Medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can temporarily alleviate pain.
Try an Epsom salt bath - Soaking in a warm bath with Epsom salts may soothe kidney pain.
Avoid potential irritants - Stop consuming alcohol, caffeine, and other substances that may adversely affect the kidneys.
Consume parsley or ginger - Some natural compounds in these foods may have anti-inflammatory effects to reduce pain.
Practice stress-reduction techniques - Stress and anxiety can make kidney pain worse. Try meditation, yoga, or deep breathing.
While home remedies may provide temporary relief, they should not replace medical treatment for a serious kidney condition. Seek prompt medical attention if pain persists or worsens.
When Kidney Pain Requires Surgery
For moderate to severe kidney pain caused by a blockage, stone, or mass, surgery may be necessary to remove the obstruction and resolve the pain. Some surgical procedures used are:
Shock wave lithotripsy - Uses sound waves to break up large kidney stones so they can pass naturally. Local anesthesia is used.
Ureteroscopy - A thin scope inserted through the urethra to reach the ureter and remove stones. Usually done under general anesthesia.
Percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL) - An incision is made in the back to directly access large kidney stones and remove them. This is done with general anesthesia.
Nephrectomy - Removal of all or part of the kidney. Done for cancer or when the kidney is severely damaged. It requires general anesthesia and a hospital stay.
Surgeries like these are done to relieve blockages, remove sources of pain like stones or tumors, and improve kidney function in severe cases. Talk to your urologist about whether surgery may be appropriate to resolve your kidney pain.
Conclusion: Don’t Ignore Persistent Kidney Pain
Kidney pain is often felt as a dull ache or tenderness in your middle to upper back under your ribs, and may radiate around your sides and down towards the groin area. While many causes of kidney pain can be treated with rest, hydration, pain medication or antibiotics, some require prompt medical intervention to avoid complications like sepsis or kidney failure.
See your doctor right away if you have any severe, persistent kidney pain not relieved by home remedies, especially if accompanied by concerning symptoms like fever, nausea, or blood in the urine. Getting an accurate diagnosis is key so that the appropriate treatment can be started to resolve your kidney pain and prevent damage to these vital organs. With prompt care, most causes of kidney pain can be successfully managed.