Kidney Pain: What’s Behind It?

What could be causing your kidney pain? It could be the result of injury, infection, or serious diseases.

kidney pain

What could be causing your kidney pain? An infection, kidney stones, or even a urinary tract infection could be at play.

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Because kidney pain location is frequently focused in the upper back, it’s easy to mistake kidney pain for upper back pain. But kidney pain isn’t related to muscular issues, or to other causes of back pain, such as the pinched nerve that can trigger spinal stenosis symptoms. Kidney pain also tends to feel different—deeper, with kidney pain location under the ribs rather than centered on the spinal column (although kidneys pain location can be lower down if it is caused by kidney stones).

Also, the location of kidney pain in back can be on either or both sides of your mid and upper region. It typically presents with other symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Pain and/or burning on urination
  • Nausea and vomiting

(See also our post Kidney Failure: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment.)

What Causes Kidney Pain?

Kidney pain relief will depend on the underlying cause for your pain—your doctor will likely order blood and urine tests in order to diagnose the cause, and imaging tests such as ultrasound, a computed tomography (CT) scan, and magnetic resonance imagine also may be used. Causes for kidney pain can vary, including:

    • Urinary tract infections: While urine is sterile, it is possible for bacteria to cause a urinary tract infection (UTI) at the opening of the urethra, where urine exits the body. The infection can then spread up into the urinary tract. You are more at risk for urinary tract infections if you have kidney stones or conditions that prevent you from fully emptying your bladder (for example, an enlarged prostate). Poor bathroom hygiene also can result in the spread of E. coli bacteria to the urethra from the anus, so make a point of wiping from front to back.
    • Kidney infection: Rarely, a urinary tract infection can be serious enough to cause pyelonephritis, which is a serious kidney infection. Prompt treatment is vital, since pyelonephritis can permanently damage the kidneys, so contact your doctor immediately if UTI symptoms aren’t improving despite treatment, or if a UTI is accompanied by bloody urine, fever, nausea and vomiting, and a steady, aching kidney pain in your back and sides.
    • Kidney stone pain: If it is caused by kidney stones, kidney pain location will generally be lower down, in the groin and flanks. About one in 20 people develop a kidney stone in their lifetime—risk factors include dehydration, gout, a diet high in protein, sodium, and sugar, and certain medications (including corticosteroids and high blood pressure drugs). Kidney stones generally cause no or few symptoms unless they exit the kidney and get into the bladder. If this happens, you will experience cramping kidney pain that can be severe, and you also may notice blood in your urine.

A small kidney stone may be passed out of the body in the urine (drinking plenty of water can help), but larger stones may need a medical procedure to break them up so they can pass out of the body, or may need surgical removal.

Other rare conditions related to kidney pain causes include disruption of blood flow to the kidneys by a blood clot, bleeding in the kidneys (kidney hemorrhage), kidney tumors (these typically don’t cause kidney pain unless they are large), and polycystic kidney disease, which causes clusters of cysts to form in the kidneys.


For more information on kidney stones, please visit these posts:

Originally published in 2016, this post is regularly updated.

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Kate Brophy

Kate Brophy is an experienced health writer and editor with a long career in the UK and United States. Kate has been Executive Editor of the Icahn School of Medicine … Read More

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