Kidney Pain vs. Back Pain: How to Tell the Difference

Medically Reviewed By Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
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You may confuse kidney pain with back pain due to their location. You can determine the source of the pain by observing your other symptoms. To determine if the pain originates from your kidney or your back, consider the exact location of the pain. It is also important to consider its type, severity, and accompanying symptoms.

Your doctor can help diagnose the source of your pain and recommend the appropriate treatment to manage it.

This article will explain how to determine what type of pain you are experiencing. It will also explain back pain and kidney pain symptoms and how to treat them.

Identifying kidney pain

Person dressed in yellow against a pink background stretching their lower back
Eloisa Ramos/Stocksy United

An infection or a kidney stone may cause kidney pain. If your kidney is causing you pain, it may also have the following characteristics.

Location

Kidney pain usually occurs just below the rib cage. Depending on whether the condition affects only one kidney or both, you may experience pain on one or both sides of your spine. The source of your pain may feel deep inside your body.

Kidney pain may also radiate to other areas of your body, including your:

  • abdomen
  • thigh
  • sides
  • groin

Accompanying symptoms

If you have kidney pain, you may also experience some of its accompanying symptoms. These can include:

Other signs of severe kidney problems, such as chronic kidney disease, may include:

Type and severity of pain

Pain from a kidney infection is usually mild. A kidney infection may cause a dull ache that usually remains stable.

You may experience sharp and intense pain if you have a kidney stone. Its severity depends on the size of the stone passing through your urinary system. As the stone passes, pain may radiate from your mid back, around your side, and down into your lower abdomen.

Causes of kidney pain

Different types of conditions may cause kidney pain, including:

Read about kidney stones.

Treatment for kidney pain

Usually, the pain won’t improve until you correct the underlying condition affecting your kidney. For example, you may need to pass a kidney stone or treat the underlying infection, depending on the cause.

Depending on the cause of your kidney pain, you might be able to treat it with home remedies. In other cases, you may need to take medication or undergo surgery.

For small kidney stones, you should drink lots of water to help the stone pass.

Your doctor may prescribe medication to treat other conditions. These medications may include:

  • antibiotics
  • blood pressure medications
  • anticoagulants
  • cholesterol medications
  • targeted cancer medications

Surgery may be necessary to treat certain kidney conditions. Severe conditions, such as tumors, may require the partial or complete removal of one or both kidneys. 

Identifying back pain

Muscles, bones, and nerves in your back usually cause back pain. Typically, back pain is more common than kidney pain.

Back pain usually has the following characteristics.

Location

You can experience back pain anywhere on your back. However, back pain most commonly occurs in the lower back region.

Accompanying symptoms

You may experience other symptoms alongside back pain, depending on the location and underlying cause. These symptoms may include:

  • swelling in the affected area
  • muscle spasms in the affected area
  • stiffness along the spine
  • pain in your neck that may be described as “stabbing pain”
  • tenderness when pressure is applied to the affected area
  • difficulty walking
  • difficulty standing up straight
  • numbness or tingling in the back that spreads to the limbs
  • numbness or weakness in one or both legs
  • inability to empty the bladder or loss of bladder control
  • diarrhea or constipation

If you have back pain and cannot hold your bowel or bladder movements, something may be pressing on your spinal nerves. You may be experiencing cauda equina syndrome. This condition can cause severe, long-term spinal nerve damage. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience these symptoms.

Read more about understanding back pain.

Type and severity of pain

You may experience different types of pain and symptoms depending on the cause of your back pain:

  • Muscles: When your back muscles cause pain, you may experience a dull ache. Certain body movements may trigger the pain or worsen it. This pain can range from mild to severe.
  • Nerves: When nerve conditions cause back pain, you may experience a burning or stabbing sensation that can travel to other areas of your body. Sciatica is an example of back pain resulting from nerves.
  • Bones: When bone conditions cause back pain, you may experience moderate to severe pain that typically worsens with movement. This pain usually results from spinal fractures or an irregularly shaped spine.

Causes of back pain

Straining a muscle or a ligament in the back is the most common cause of back pain. You may strain your back from lifting too much weight, using lifting things incorrectly, or overstretching your back.

Other causes of back pain may include:

  • standing or sitting for too long
  • improper posture, such as prolonged slouching or tension
  • muscle tension or spasms
  • injuries to your back, such as fractures or falls
  • unusual curvature of your spine, such as scoliosis
  • dislocated, damaged, or ruptured discs
  • tumors

Other medical conditions that may cause back pain include:

Treatment for back pain

You may be able to relieve back pain with anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

Speak with your doctor before taking ibuprofen or naproxen if you have stomach ulcers or kidney problems. These medications may worsen those preexisting conditions.

Without your doctor’s recommendation, you should never take more than the recommended dose of these over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Taking more than the recommended dosage may cause severe side effects.

Other medications that may help treat your back pain include:

  • muscle relaxants
  • topical rubs and ointments
  • antidepressants
  • corticosteroid injections
  • opioids

The doctor may suggest surgery if:

  • you experience constant, severe pain with identifiable structural  irregularities
  • you experience nerve compression, which causes weakness in your muscles
  • your spinal cord compression limits your daily activities

You may also consider alternative therapies to help relieve your back pain. Make sure you talk with your doctor before undergoing any alternative therapy.

Alternative therapies include:

When to see a doctor

Consider contacting your doctor to evaluate and treat your condition if any pain concerns you. Always contact your doctor if you believe you may have a kidney stone or a kidney infection.

You may be able to treat mild back pain yourself. However, contact your doctor if it persists, spreads, or worsens.

Seek medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • back pain that worsens over time
  • pain, tingling, or numbness in your arms or down your legs
  • swelling of your feet, ankles, or legs
  • difficulty standing or walking
  • sudden bowel or bladder problems
  • fever
  • irregular heartbeat
  • shortness of breath
  • unexplained weight loss

Summary

Your kidneys sit below the rib cage, against the back muscles on either side of your spine. Because of their location, you may easily mistake kidney pain for back pain.

You may experience kidney pain on one or both sides of your back. Kidney infections, stones, and trauma can cause kidney pain. You may also experience blood in your urine, painful urination, dizziness, fever, nausea, and other symptoms.

You may experience back pain in any part of your back. However, the lower back is the most common area for pain and tenderness. Heavy lifting, prolonged sitting or standing, and improper posture may trigger back pain.

Recognizing what type of pain you have may lead to an early diagnosis and better treatment outcomes.

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Medical Reviewer: Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 18
View All Kidneys and the Urinary System Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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