Kidney pain, medically referred to as renal pain, is often caused by diseases such as nephrolithiasis (kidney stones), pyelonephritis (kidney infection), or glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the kidney’s filtration system). It is typically felt as a dull ache on one or both sides of the lower back, below the ribs, but can sometimes radiate to the groin area. Back pain, on the other hand, can be a result of various musculoskeletal issues like muscle or ligament strain, disc herniation, spinal stenosis, or spondylolisthesis (3). It usually presents as pain anywhere along the spine, which can be accompanied by stiffness, muscle spasms, or reduced range of motion.

Determining whether the source of pain is the kidney or the back is crucial to proper treatment. Misidentification of the pain source can result in inadequate or inappropriate treatment, causing delay in resolving the actual underlying issue (1). For instance, kidney infection, if not promptly treated, can lead to severe complications like kidney damage or sepsis. Similarly, untreated severe back issues can progress to chronic pain or neurological problems.

This article provides an in-depth exploration of kidney pain and back pain, including their typical causes, clinical presentations, diagnostic approaches, and management options. The goal is to help readers gain a deeper understanding of their symptoms and assist them in seeking appropriate medical consultation when needed.

Contents hide

Basic Anatomy and Function of Kidneys

Basic Anatomy and Function of Kidneys

Location and Structure: The kidneys are bean-shaped organs situated on either side of the spine in the posterior abdominal cavity, immediate below the rib cage. Each kidney is made up of approximately a million filtering units called nephrons.

Blood Filtration: The primary function of the kidneys is to filter waste products, toxins, and excess substances such as water, salts, and electrolytes from the blood (2). This filtration process happens in the nephrons, which generate urine as a byproduct.

Regulation of Fluid and Electrolytes: The kidneys play a key role in maintaining the body’s electrolyte balance (sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, etc.) and the overall fluid balance. Any disruption to these processes can lead to serious health complications.

Hormone Secretion: The kidneys also secrete hormones that have vital roles in the body. These include erythropoietin (stimulates red blood cell production), renin (regulates blood pressure), and calcitriol (the active form of vitamin D, which helps maintain calcium for bones and for normal chemical balance in the body).

Pain Sensation: The kidneys themselves do not have nerve endings that sense pain, but the surrounding tissues do. Conditions that affect the kidneys, such as infections, kidney stones, or other kidney diseases, can cause pain in the area where the kidneys are located (known as “kidney pain” or “renal pain”).

Understanding this basic anatomy and function of the kidneys is crucial for distinguishing kidney pain from back pain, as they can often present with similar symptoms.

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Basic Anatomy of the Back (muscles, spine, nerves)

Basic Anatomy of the Back (muscles, spine, nerves)

The back is composed of a complex structure of muscles, ligaments, tendons, discs, and bones, which work together to support the body and enable movement. The spine specifically houses the spinal cord, a central pathway for messages between the brain and the rest of the body (4).

Vertebrae: The backbone or spine is composed of 33 individual bones called vertebrae, stacked one on top of the other. These vertebrae are divided into different regions: 7 cervical (neck), 12 thoracic (mid-back), 5 lumbar (lower back), 5 sacral (fused into one sacrum bone), and 4 coccygeal (fused into one coccyx or tailbone).

Intervertebral Discs: Located between each pair of vertebrae, these discs act as shock absorbers and provide flexibility to the spine. Each disc is made up of a gel-like center (the nucleus pulposus) encased in a tough, fibrous outer layer (the annulus fibrosus).

Muscles and Ligaments: Numerous muscles in the back provide movement and stability, while ligaments connecting the vertebrae add strength and flexibility. These muscles and ligaments can become strained or injured, often leading to back pain.

Nerves: The spinal cord, housed within the spinal column, branches off into numerous nerves that exit between the vertebrae. These nerves relay information between the rest of the body and the brain. If these nerves become impinged or irritated (for example, by a herniated disc), it can lead to pain that may be felt in the back or radiate to other areas.

Kidney Pain

Causes of Kidney Pain

1. Kidney Stones

Kidney Stones

Kidney stones, or renal calculi, are hard deposits made of minerals and salts that form inside your kidneys. They originate when the urine becomes concentrated, allowing minerals to crystallize and bind together. Pain from kidney stones usually starts when they move into the ureter, causing severe, sharp, and cramping pain that typically comes in waves and fluctuates in intensity (11). The pain often starts in the back or side below the ribs and can radiate to the lower abdomen and groin.

2. Kidney Infections

Pyelonephritis is an infection of the kidney often caused by bacteria that have ascended from the bladder or, less commonly, spread through the bloodstream to the kidneys. The infection can cause pain, often accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, urinary symptoms (painful urination, frequent urination, urgency), and sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea and vomiting (6).

3. Other Kidney Conditions

Other conditions such as polycystic kidney disease, kidney tumors, or hydronephrosis (swelling of a kidney due to a build-up of urine) can also cause kidney pain (9).

Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD): This is a genetic disorder characterized by the growth of numerous fluid-filled cysts in the kidneys. These cysts can multiply and grow, leading to enlarged kidneys and disrupted kidney function. PKD can cause pain in the abdomen, side, or back due to the pressure of the growing cysts on surrounding tissues or due to cyst rupture or infection.

Kidney Tumors: Benign or malignant tumors in the kidney can also cause pain, typically in the side, abdomen, or back. Pain might occur due to the growth of the tumor causing pressure on adjacent structures, or due to the involvement of nerves.

Autoimmune Diseases: Certain autoimmune diseases, such as lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus), can affect the kidneys, resulting in inflammation and damage known as lupus nephritis. This condition can also cause kidney pain.

Glomerulonephritis: This refers to a range of inflammatory conditions affecting the glomeruli, the tiny filtering units in the kidneys. Glomerulonephritis can be caused by infections, drugs, or underlying health conditions and can lead to kidney pain in some cases.

Common Symptoms and Presentation of Kidney Pain

Kidney pain typically presents as a dull ache on one or both sides of the lower back or abdomen. It may be constant or intermittent and can vary in intensity. Associated symptoms may include fever, nausea, vomiting, and changes in urinary habits, such as frequency, urgency, or visible blood in the urine (hematuria) (10).

Location and Nature of Pain: Kidney pain is typically localized in the lower back or flank, specifically beneath the ribs. It can sometimes be felt in the front of the abdomen. Unlike musculoskeletal back pain, kidney pain is often deep and persistent, and does not usually change with body movements or positions.

Hematuria: One of the most common symptoms associated with kidney conditions is hematuria or blood in the urine. This can manifest as pink, red, or cola-colored urine depending on the amount of blood. It’s important to note that hematuria can be a sign of several conditions, not just kidney diseases.

Changes in Urine: Changes in urine other than color can also occur with kidney conditions. This could include cloudy urine or urine that has a strong, foul odor. In some cases, the frequency of urination might also change, with individuals needing to urinate more or less frequently than usual.

Systemic Symptoms: Kidney conditions can also present with systemic symptoms, which affect the entire body. These can include fatigue, malaise, and a general feeling of being unwell. Fever and chills might be present in cases of infection.

Other Symptoms: Depending on the specific kidney condition, other symptoms might also be present. For example, kidney stones might cause severe, cramping pain that comes in waves, while a kidney infection might cause symptoms like fever and chills.

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Back Pain

Back Pain

Causes of Back Pain

1. Muscular Strain or Injury

One of the most common causes of back pain is a strain or injury to the muscles, ligaments, or tendons in the back which can occur as a result of heavy lifting, an abrupt and awkward movement, poor posture, or overuse (12). The pain from muscular strain is often localized, dull, aching, and may be associated with muscle spasms.

2. Herniated Disc

The spine is made up of a series of interconnected bones, or vertebrae, separated by discs that act as shock absorbers Herniated discs occur when the soft center of a spinal disc pushes through a crack in the tougher exterior, potentially irritating nearby nerves and causing pain, numbness, or weakness in an arm or leg (8).

3. Other Spinal Conditions

Conditions such as spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, and osteoarthritis of the spine can also cause back pain (7).

Spinal Stenosis: This condition is characterized by the narrowing of the spinal canal, which can put pressure on the nerves that travel through the spine. Symptoms can include back pain, as well as numbness, weakness, or cramping in the legs.

Degenerative Disc Disease: This condition is a part of the normal aging process but can cause significant back pain for some people. It involves the breakdown or deterioration of the intervertebral discs — the cushion-like pads between the vertebrae. As these discs wear down, they may cause pain due to increased pressure on the surrounding structures.

Spondylolisthesis: This condition occurs when one vertebra in the spine slips forward over the one below it. This can cause the spinal canal to narrow and put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves, leading to back pain and possibly leg pain.

Spinal Arthritis: Also known as osteoarthritis of the spine, this condition involves the wear and tear of the cartilage in the joints and discs in the neck and lower back. It can cause stiffness and pain in the back.

Osteoporosis: This is a disease characterized by a decrease in bone density, which can lead to an increased risk of fractures. In some cases, the vertebrae in the spine can develop compression fractures, resulting in back pain. Osteoporosis-related back pain may have a sudden onset if it is due to a vertebral fracture.

Common Symptoms and Presentation of Back Pain

Symptoms can include a dull ache, sharp or burning pain, or radiating pain down the legs. Pain may worsen with bending, lifting, standing, or walking, and improve when reclining (5).

Nature of Pain: Back pain can vary greatly in its nature. It can present as a dull, constant ache or a sudden, sharp pain that feels like a jolt or electric shock. For some people, the pain might be a throbbing or pulsating sensation.

Duration of Pain: The duration of back pain can be categorized as acute (lasts for a few days to weeks) or chronic (persists for more than three months). Acute back pain often resolves with self-care measures, but chronic back pain often requires more targeted treatment and can significantly impact quality of life.

Location of Pain and Radiation: While back pain is typically felt in the back, it might also radiate to other areas of the body. Depending on the cause, pain might extend to the arms, legs, or even the chest. For example, a herniated disc in the lower spine might cause pain that radiates down the back of the leg (sciatica).

Associated Symptoms: Back pain can be associated with a variety of other symptoms. This could include stiffness or reduced mobility in the back, making it difficult to move or bend. If a nerve is compressed, neurological symptoms might occur, such as numbness, tingling, or weakness in the extremities.

Aggravating and Relieving Factors: The pain might be influenced by certain movements, positions, or activities. For instance, pain might worsen when lifting heavy objects, during certain movements, or after sitting or standing for prolonged periods. Conversely, some positions or activities might alleviate the pain.

Distinguishing Between Kidney Pain and Back Pain

Comparative Analysis of Symptoms

1. Location of Pain

  • Kidney pain is typically located in the flank, which is the area on either side of the spine between the bottom of the ribcage and the hips. It can sometimes be felt in the upper abdomen or can radiate towards the groin.
  • Back pain, however, can occur anywhere in the back, but most often occurs in the lower back. It may also radiate to the buttocks, thighs, or legs, particularly in cases of nerve involvement.

2. Nature of Pain

  • Kidney pain is often deep, severe, and can result in waves of pain (colic), especially in the case of kidney stones. Back pain tends to be more constant and is often influenced by movement or position (14). It may become sharp if a stone moves within the kidney or ureter.
  • Back pain can also be dull or sharp, but it’s often described as aching, burning, or stinging. Back pain can also be acute, such as after an injury, or chronic, persisting for more than three months.

3. Associated Symptoms

  • Kidney pain is often associated with other symptoms, such as urinary changes (frequency, color, odor), nausea, vomiting, fever, or chills, especially in cases of infection.
  • Back pain, especially if due to a musculoskeletal cause, is often accompanied by muscle tightness or stiffness, restricted range of motion, or, if a nerve is involved, numbness, or tingling down the buttocks or legs.

Diagnostic Procedures

1. Physical Examination

A clinician might use physical examinations like the costovertebral angle (CVA) tenderness test for kidney pain or the straight leg raise test for sciatica associated with back pain.

General Observation: The examination begins with observing the patient’s posture, mobility, and any visible signs of discomfort or distress. This can provide useful information about the potential source of the pain.

Palpation and Percussion: The physician will likely palpate (touch) the back, sides, and abdomen to identify any areas of tenderness or swelling. A technique known as percussion involves gently tapping the back and sides near the kidney area. If this results in pain, it could suggest kidney involvement, a clinical sign known as costovertebral angle tenderness.

Movement Analysis: The doctor might also ask the patient to perform certain movements to assess the impact on the pain. Back pain, particularly if musculoskeletal in nature, often worsens with certain movements, bending, or walking. On the other hand, kidney pain is typically not affected by these activities.

Neurological Examination: If the doctor suspects that the back pain might be due to nerve involvement, a neurological examination might be performed. This can involve assessing muscle strength, reflexes, and response to light touch or pinprick in different areas of the body.

A physical examination provides immediate, firsthand information about the patient’s condition and can often give strong indications of the source of the pain. However, additional tests are usually needed to confirm a diagnosis.

2. Imaging Tests

Imaging tests such as ultrasound, CT, and MRI can be used to visualize the kidneys or spine and help identify the cause of pain (13).

Ultrasound: This non-invasive test uses sound waves to create images of organs and structures inside the body. An ultrasound can often detect kidney stones, cysts, or other abnormalities in the kidney.

CT Scan: A CT (computed tomography) scan uses X-rays to create detailed cross-sectional images of the body. This test can identify kidney stones, tumors, and other kidney problems, as well as issues in the back such as herniated discs or fractures.

X-ray: X-rays can be used to view the bones and joints in the back. This can help identify fractures, alignment issues, or degenerative changes related to conditions such as osteoarthritis or spinal stenosis.

MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides detailed images of soft tissues, bones, and organs. It can be particularly useful in identifying problems with the discs in the back or detecting certain conditions affecting the kidneys.

3. Urine and Blood Tests

Urinalysis can detect abnormalities associated with kidney conditions, and blood tests can identify inflammation or infection (18).

Urinalysis: This test involves analyzing a sample of urine. It can detect bacteria, blood, or other substances in the urine that could indicate a kidney infection, kidney stone, or other kidney problems.

Blood Tests: Certain blood tests can provide information about kidney function. For instance, the creatinine level can indicate how well the kidneys are filtering waste from the blood. Elevated levels might suggest a kidney problem.

Potential Risks of Misdiagnosis

Misdiagnosis could lead to inappropriate treatment, complications, and prolonged pain. For instance, undiagnosed kidney infection can lead to sepsis, and misdiagnosed back pain can result in unnecessary surgery (1).

Treatment and Management

Common Treatments for Kidney Pain

Depending on the cause, treatments might include antibiotics for infections, pain management, or surgical intervention for severe kidney stones.

Kidney Stones:

Pain Relief: Over-the-counter pain medications (e.g., ibuprofen) can help alleviate kidney stone pain.

Hydration: Drinking plenty of fluids can help flush out smaller kidney stones.

Medical Procedures: Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) uses shock waves to break up kidney stones, allowing them to pass more easily. In some cases, surgical interventions like ureteroscopy or percutaneous nephrolithotomy may be necessary to remove or break up larger stones.

Kidney Infections:

Antibiotics: Treatment involves a course of antibiotics to target the specific bacteria causing the infection.

Other Kidney Conditions:

Treatment approaches will depend on the specific condition. For example, kidney tumors may require surgical removal, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapies, or a combination of these treatments.

Common Treatments for Back Pain

Back pain treatment may involve pain relievers, physical therapy, or in severe cases, surgery (17).

Conservative Management:

Rest: Taking a break from activities that aggravate the pain can promote healing.

Physical Therapy: Specific exercises and stretches can improve flexibility, strength, and posture to alleviate back pain.

Over-the-Counter Medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce pain and inflammation.

Medical Interventions:

Prescription Medications: Stronger pain medications, muscle relaxants, or corticosteroids may be prescribed for severe or chronic back pain.

Epidural Steroid Injections: Injections of anti-inflammatory medication around spinal nerves can provide relief for certain types of back pain.

Surgery: Surgical intervention may be considered for specific back conditions, such as herniated discs, spinal stenosis, or spinal deformities.

Complementary Therapies:

Acupuncture: The insertion of thin needles at specific points can help relieve back pain.

Yoga or Pilates: These exercises focus on strengthening the core muscles and improving flexibility, which can support the back.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Psychological therapy can help individuals manage pain by addressing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to their condition.

Importance of Early Detection and Management

Early diagnosis and management of both kidney and back pain can prevent complications, improve quality of life, and reduce healthcare costs (15). This includes avoiding progression to chronic pain, mitigating risk of permanent damage (such as kidney damage from untreated infections or nerve damage from untreated spinal conditions), and improving overall quality of life.


Understanding the differences between kidney and back pain is essential to reach an accurate diagnosis and apply appropriate treatments. Both types of pain present their unique characteristics and associated symptoms, highlighting the importance of careful clinical examination and testing.

It is essential for individuals experiencing either kidney pain or back pain to seek professional medical advice. Self-diagnosis or delay in seeking help can lead to complications and worsening of the underlying condition. Healthcare providers are equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools to correctly diagnose and manage these conditions.


How can I tell if my pain is from my kidneys or my back?

Determining the source of pain can be tricky as both kidney and back pain can present in similar locations and with similar intensity. Generally, kidney pain is often felt in the lower back or flank and can be severe and deep. It is usually located under the ribs and may radiate to the lower abdomen or groin. Back pain, on the other hand, tends to be localized to the muscles, bones, or nerves in the back, and it can be associated with movements or specific postures.

What are the additional symptoms that can indicate kidney pain?

In addition to pain, kidney issues might cause symptoms like blood in the urine, frequent or painful urination, fever, nausea, and vomiting. In severe cases, kidney conditions like stones or infections might cause intense pain that comes in waves.

What are the symptoms that might suggest back pain?

Symptoms associated with back pain can include muscle tightness or stiffness, pain that worsens with bending, lifting, standing, or walking, and pain that improves when you recline. Back pain can also present with numbness, tingling, or weakness in the legs if the nerves are involved.

Can kidney pain be mistaken for back pain and vice versa?

Yes, it is not uncommon for kidney pain to be mistaken for back pain, and vice versa. This is due to the anatomical location of the kidneys in the lower back. If you have persistent pain, it is always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the cause.

What should I do if I suspect my pain is due to a kidney issue?

If you suspect kidney issues, you should seek immediate medical attention. Kidney problems, if left untreated, can lead to serious complications. A healthcare provider can diagnose the problem through a variety of tests including urine tests, blood tests, imaging studies, or kidney function tests.

How are kidney pain and back pain treated?

Treatment for kidney pain depends on the cause. If the pain is due to an infection, antibiotics are usually prescribed. For kidney stones, treatment may involve pain relief, drinking lots of fluids, and in some cases, procedures to remove or break up the stones. Back pain treatment also depends on the underlying cause and can range from pain relievers, physical therapy, lifestyle modifications to surgical interventions in more severe cases.

Can lifestyle changes help prevent kidney pain or back pain?

Yes, certain lifestyle changes can help prevent both kidney and back pain. Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, staying hydrated, reducing salt and protein intake can help prevent kidney stones, one of the causes of kidney pain. For back pain, maintaining good posture, regular exercise focusing on back strengthening, and avoiding heavy lifting can be beneficial.

Can the severity of the pain determine whether it is kidney pain or back pain?

Not necessarily. Both kidney pain and back pain can range from mild to severe. The nature of the pain can sometimes provide clues – kidney pain is often deep and steady, and it can be quite severe. Back pain can be constant or intermittent, and it may vary with your position or activity. However, severity alone is not a reliable indicator of the source of the pain. If you’re experiencing severe pain, you should seek medical attention immediately.


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