Kidney pain

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 30, 2015
StartSymptomsKidney pain

Kidney pain, also referred to as renal pain, is characterized by a dull ache located in the upper back just below the lower ribs. The pain can be located on one or both sides and may be acute, chronic, constant, or intermittent. Kidney pain can be difficult to diagnose since the pain often mimics back pain. The following examines typical causes of kidney pain, how it can be distinguished from back pain, and when to seek the help of a medical professional.


Definition & Facts

The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs situated on the right and left side of the upper abdomen against the muscles of the back. The right kidney is located slightly lower than the left to make room for the liver. The main purpose of the kidneys is to remove waste and excess fluids from the body in the form of urine.

The kidneys help control blood pressure and secrete hormones that aid in the production of red blood cells. The kidneys also regulate the body’s acid and electrolyte content. It is often difficult to distinguish renal pain from back pain. Kidney pain is usually deep and located under the ribs. The muscle pain associated with back injuries tends to be lower and more superficial. Additional symptoms often accompany kidney pain, including:


Renal pain is typically the result of injury, inflammation, or infection of the kidneys or associated structures, including the ureters and bladder. Common causes of kidney pain include:

Kidney stones can cause flank pain as they travel through the urinary tract. This pain is referred to as renal or urinary colic. The pain can be quite intense, often comes and goes in waves, and can seem to move as the stone travels through the body. The exact cause of kidney pain is determined through physical examination, urine and blood tests, and MRIs, ultrasounds, or CTs of the pelvis and abdomen.

When to see a doctor

Anyone experiencing renal or flank pain should seek a doctor’s advice to determine the underlying cause. Long-term kidney damage can occur if the underlying cause of the pain is not identified and treated. Prompt medical attention is especially important in the following situations:

Treatment & Therapy

There are a number of treatments available for kidney pain depending on the underlying cause. The pain itself is usually treated with over-the-counter pain relievers including ibuprofen and acetaminophen or doctor prescribed medications such as ketorolac or morphine.

It’s important to remember that these drugs only address the pain and not the cause and that individuals with compromised renal function should not receive painkillers that are metabolized by the kidneys. Pain related to an infection of the kidneys or another part of the urinary system requires treatment with antibiotics. In cases where an infection is suspected, the doctor will normally order a urine culture to determine which antibiotic will be most effective for the type of bacteria causing the infection.

The treatment of kidney stones varies depending on the size of the stone. If the stone is smaller than about six millimeters and is not obstructing the ureters, the doctor may let the stone pass naturally. Large, obstructing stones may require immediate surgery. In some cases, a nonsurgical procedure called lithotripsy may be used to break up the stone. The procedure uses ultrasonic sound waves to break the stone into small pieces that can be passed from the body through the urine.

If the pain is caused by physical trauma, surgery is usually required to repair the damage to the kidney. Recovery times following surgeries can vary significantly based on the individual, the nature of the problem, and the type of procedure perform. In most cases, recovery takes place within a few weeks to months. In cases where the kidney function is severely compromised, the individual faces the possibility of dialysis or even kidney transplant.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Almost everyone experiences kidney pain due to infection or stones at some point in their life. The following steps can reduce the likelihood of developing conditions that can affect the health and function of the kidneys:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. This helps the kidneys flush substances from the body that can lead to infections and stones.
  • Practice good hygiene. Many urinary tract and kidney infections are caused by improper wiping when going to the bathroom. This is especially true for women due to the short distance between the anus, the urethra, and the urethral opening to the bladder. It is important always to wipe from front to back to limit the possibility of bacteria from fecal matter from being introduced into the urethra.
  • Get an adequate dietary intake of calcium based on age. This keeps oxalate levels from increasing, which can lead to kidney stones.
  • Cut back on sodium. Excess sodium can cause calcium levels to increase, which can cause kidney stones.
  • Avoid foods rich in oxalates and phosphates, which can cause kidney stones. Examples of these foods include colas, beets, chocolate, tea, nuts, rhubarb, and spinach.
  • Limit intake of animal proteins. A diet high in animal proteins can cause uric levels to rise, which can lead to kidney stones and even gout.