The kidneys are a pair of large fist-sized organs behind your belly that plays the role of filtering blood in the human body. When the kidney fails to function properly due to various factors, it causes pain which is also called flank pain. The flank area is in the middle back portion of your body where you feel the ache that is recognized as a kidney pain.
Kidney pain is better understood if you know its location and function.
Anatomy of the Kidney- Location and Function
How does the kidney look?
They appear in a pair and are bean-shaped organs, each measuring 4-5 inches long.
Each one is located on either side of the spine, just below the ribs against the back muscles. The kidneys sit in the upper abdominal area on both the right and left side of the body. Since the liver is located in the upper quadrant of the abdomen, the right kidney fits a little lower than the left pair in order to accommodate adequately.
The kidneys perform several vital functions that have been discussed below:
- Its crucial role is filtering waste from your blood and adjusting the levels of water, salt and minerals. The idea is to maintain the fluid balance in the body by removing waste and keeping the levels of electrolytes in balance. The waste is then flushed out of the body in the form of urine.
- Its next major function is regulating the extracellular fluid volume. This is done by maintaining a balanced quantity of plasma in order to ensure that filtered blood is reaching the vital organs.
- Another crucial function is regulating the ion concentrations. Both the bean-shaped organs are responsible for keeping the ion levels, such as potassium, sodium, and calcium at a constant level.
- Another major function of the kidney involves the production of the hormones. The kidneys function by stimulating and regulating the red blood cell synthesis in order to control blood pressure, water, and salt balance. Other than this, the kidneys produce erythropoietin and regulate glucose levels along with plasma calcium.
Kidney pain, however, arises due to kidney stones and urinary tract infections. The stones and infections prevent the kidney from functioning properly that culminates into kidney pain.
How kidney pain affects your health?
The diagnosis of kidney pain is important to understand what’s exactly causing the pain. The presence of kidney stones and infections give rise to pain that should be referred to a doctor. As long as the kidney is able to filter blood and carry out its normal functions, you may not notice any problems or symptoms. However, if blood stops flowing to your kidney, it will lead to kidney failure and fatal consequences, eventually.
Where is the kidney pain felt or located and what does kidney pain feel like?
There is a deep dull pain in the upper back of your body under the ribs. The most common cause for this is the kidney stones.
Kidney Pain Symptoms
Kidney pain is accompanied by a number of symptoms that usually represent any issues in the urinary tract. Therefore, let’s have a look at the urinary tract symptoms, which are as follows:
- Blood in urine (also called Hematuria)
- Change in urine colour
- Decrease in urine output (also called Oliguria)
- Urinary frequency and urgency
- Feeling pain while urinating
- Increase in the frequency of urination
- No urine output at all (also called Anuria)
Other than these, there are other symptoms associated with kidney pain. They are:
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting and nausea
- Edema of legs, feet, hand, and the whole body
- Weight gain or loss
- Painful menstruation
- Nail abnormalities
- High blood pressure or Hypertension
- Joint pain
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Blood clots or bleeding in the kidney
- Polycystic kidney disease
It should be known that kidney pain can be felt on the left or right or on both sides on the back.
Kidney Pain Causes
Several reasons are accounted for kidney pain. If there is any disease or infection in the urinary tract, urinary bladder, ureters or the urethra, you can feel the fail when urine passes through the urinary tract.
Often, you can feel flank pain when there is an obstruction caused to the urinary tract due to renal stones in the ureters or the kidneys. Congenital deformities or malignant growths in the urinary tract also result in acute lower abdominal pain. Here is a detailed discussion of the different causes of kidney pain:
It is a severe kidney disorder that appears in the form of multiple cysts in your kidney. The kidney gets enlarged due to small cyst growths that lead to abdominal or flank pain. During the examination, a palpable mass is felt around the kidney region.
It is one of the most common causes of kidney pain. Kidney stones can result in a flank pain that may obstruct the kidney’s filtering system. Small stones accumulated in the kidney can pass easily, but larger stones are difficult to pass. Hence, they are broken into small pieces to aid them to pass easily. However, the associated symptoms of kidney stones are nausea, pain, and hematuria.
High alcohol intake can also cause kidney pain. Alcohol causes several problems, such as clot formation in your kidneys and atherosclerosis. It has its negative effect on the renal hormones like the anti-diuretic hormones, thus leading to dehydration.
Abnormal tumor growths in the kidney or carcinoma lead to flank pain that is accompanied by painless blood loss through the urine.
Renal vascular problems
A medical condition, known as the Arteriosclerosis of your renal arteries, causes several problems, such as reduced blood flow to your kidney that results in kidney pain.
If the urine is prevented from flowing smoothly into the bladder or through the ureters due to any blockage by stones, it results in kidney pain. Hydronephrosis should be taken seriously since the condition may cause kidney damage. The pain is often felt in the flank region or in the upper back area.
Any untreated bladder infections can infect your kidneys poorly. If immediate medical attention is not given, your kidneys may get damaged. The clinical term for this is ‘Pyelonephritis’ that shows signs of a dull aching pain in either any of the kidneys or in both. Other symptoms include vomiting and nausea.
Other than these reasons, there are other few causes that typically resemble a kidney pain. They are:
A low backache
A low backache is often confused with a kidney pain although the reason may not be the same. Sometimes, bony pain or muscular pain is triggered by stress-related reasons or wrong physical postures. The right diagnosis is required for the examination of the pain.
It is a common condition wherein the tissues that are supposed to grow on the uterus lining, grow outside. The type of pain generated from Endometriosis is often felt in the regions where the kidneys are located.
The associated symptoms include menorrhagia (or heavy menstrual discharge), dysmenorrhoea (or painful menstruation), vomiting or nausea, dyspareunia (or painful sexual intercourse), infertility, etc.
The pain arising from acute appendicitis is felt around your umbilicus region that spreads towards the right abdominal quadrant. Therefore, it is often confused with a kidney pain. However, a thorough examination of ultrasounds helps diagnose the reasons for the pain.
In this case, the pain is usually felt in the whole abdomen. However, it may also be felt either in the left or right lower abdominal quadrant. Only a proper investigation proves the actual reasons for the pain, which can be an infectious colitis. The associated symptoms include chills, fever, and diarrhea.
The condition leads to abdominal pain that is normally felt in the right or left abdominal quadrant. It is not a kidney pain, but it is caused due to inflamed conditions of the colon walls.
Kidney pain or flank pain should not be ignored and it should not be confused with other abdominal pain. You should visit a doctor right away who will suggest you go through a series of tests and check-ups in order to assess the exact reason for the pain. The types of diagnostic tests conducted for kidney pain are:
X-ray of the abdomen
An abdominal X-ray enables the doctor to have a clear look at the urinary bladder, ureters and kidneys and whether there are any stones present there. The X-rays also helps the doctor decide about the location and size of the kidneys. Other tests like ultrasounds and CT scans allow diagnosing the reason for your kidney pain.
A full blood count test is required to examine the count of blood cells. An investigation of the blood cells helps in determining whether there is any possible infection in the blood.
Intravenous pyelogram (IVP)
This is a type of X-ray done to detect the shape, size and position of the kidney, ureters and the urinary tract. The test also helps in assessing whether there are stones present there.
This is a type of test done to find out the exact cause of any infection in the kidney, ureters and the urinary tract.
Urine culture test or Blood culture test
If any of the above tests suggest the presence of infection in the urinary tract, then a urine culture or blood culture test helps in tracking the causative agent.
Analysis of the stones passed from the body
The patient is generally asked to urinate through a strainer in order to trap the stones and send them for laboratory analysis. It allows the doctor in understanding the formation of the stones, what’s causing them, and how to prevent them.
The treatment for kidney pain depends upon the underlying reason, which can be infections in the urinary tract or stones in the kidney. Have a look at the varying treatments available for kidney stones:
For small stones that show moderate symptoms
Medical therapy– Generally, doctors suggest that certain medications can help the stones pass easily from your body by relaxing the muscles of the ureter. This helps lessen the pain and lets the stones pass without causing much discomfort to the patient.
Drinking water– When a person is diagnosed with small stones in the kidney, he/she is generally advised to drink plenty of water (say 1.9 to 2.8 liters). Drinking lots of water help in ensuring the passage of clear urine.
Painkillers– When the tiny stones pass through your body, it may cause a certain degree of pain that is relieved by medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve).
For large stones
There are extensive treatments available for large kidney stones that are difficult to pass through the urinary tract. These stones cause kidney damage, bleeding or infections in the urinary tract. The treatment procedures incorporate:
Parathyroid gland surgery
There are parathyroid glands located on either side of the thyroid glands below Adam’s apple. Over-secretion of the glands produces an excessive parathyroid hormone that increases the calcium levels. This results in the formation of kidney stones.
Sometimes, there are small, benign tumor growths in the glands that lead to the over-production of parathyroid hormone. Removing the growths will help reduce the over-secretion of the glands that will lessen the calcium levels, causing the formation of the stones.
Sound waves for treatment
A special kind of treatment, called the Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy or (ESWL), is used to break large stones in the kidney with the aid of sound waves. The strong vibrations created by the sound waves allow breaking the stones easily. The procedure is done under light anesthesia since it is likely to cause moderate pain in the abdomen when the stones are cut into pieces.
ESWL is likely to show certain symptoms, such as bruising in the abdomen or back, blood in your urine, bleeding in the adjacent organs to the kidney, etc. The patient may feel a certain amount of pain when the fragments of stones pass through the urine.
Removing stones with a scope
The procedure is done under local or general anesthesia. A thin lighted tube is inserted through urethra through your bladder into the ureter. A camera is fitted at the end of the tube to help locate the image so that it can be broken into pieces for its easy extraction through the urinary tract. A stent is then placed inside to help relieve the swelling and ensure healing.
Surgery for removing large stones
A small incision is done in your back and then a small instrument is inserted for removing the kidney stone. The procedure is known as Percutaneous Nephrolithotomy and it is only suggested when the procedure of ESWL goes unsuccessful. The surgery is done under general anesthesia and it takes 2-3 days for the patient to stay in the hospital to recover.
“Prevention is better than cure.”Therefore, it is always advised to take up some preventive measures before you need to go through the above procedures at all. What can you do?
- Have a diet that is the low quantity in salt and also animal protein. Have non-animal proteins, such as legumes.
- Those who develop oxalate-rich stones are advised to eat foods low on oxalates. Include nuts, Swiss chard, rhubarb, spinach, beets, okra, tea, sweet potatoes, soy products, chocolate and black pepper.
- Eat calcium-rich foods, but definitely avoid calcium supplements.
Kidney pain can be avoided by adopting situations that help take care of the underlying causes of the medical condition. The prognosis actually depends upon the cause and the exact reason for the pain. A lot of patients are treated successfully once the diagnosis is done successfully that allows the doctor to know what type of treatment is right for him/her.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is kidney pain?
Typically known as flank pain, kidney pain is felt like a dull ache on the upper back. There are major reasons for a kidney pain, although the major reason is kidney stones.
What is the difference between a kidney pain and back pain?
Both kidney pain and back pain feel the same and certain discomfort is felt on the back. However, kidney pain is mostly felt like a dull, one-sided pain in the higher and back just below the ribs. On the other hand, muscle pain is triggered in the lower back area.
How to detect kidney infections?
The symptoms are abdominal pain, fever, chills, back and side pain, groin pain, persistent and strong urge to urinate, frequent urination, vomiting, burning sensation, etc.
What causes kidney pain?
Infections in the urinary tract and kidney stones, among the other reasons.
How are kidney stones avoided?
The best home remedy is to drink plenty of water, have calcium-rich diet and eat less salt.
When is it right to see a doctor for your kidney infections?
If the pain is persistent in your lower back or tummy and you feel genital pain.