Kidneys, two bean-shaped organs, are important to keep your body functioning healthfully. If something goes awry with them, this would result in pain. So where kidney pain is felt — also, does it really arise from the kidneys or somewhere else? For accurate answer, a number of things need to be taken into account.
First things first, what are kidneys?
Kidneys play a key role in your urinary system. Each of these tough organs is about the size of your fist, and they sit on either sides of the spine just below your rib cage.
Each kidney has millions of super tiny structures, also called as ‘nephrons’, to filter waste products and remove excess liquid from the bloodstream. They are also necessary to get rid of excess acid and regulate a healthy-balanced level of water (liquid), salts, and minerals (including potassium, phosphorus, and calcium).
In essence, the main job is to provide a healthy-balanced blood to support a lot of things so the body keeps working healthfully and continuously. Without healthy-balanced blood, various organ systems in the body are affected.
The kidneys also play a role in producing hormones to; create red blood cells, control blood pressure, and keep the bones healthy (strong).
The blood circulation that flows in and flows out of the kidneys occur many times in 24 hours. About 150 quarts of blood is filtered per day .
Blood goes into the kidneys via renal artery, a large blood vessel. This renal artery splits into smaller and very smaller blood vessels to carry blood to the nephrons. Then filtered, healthy blood flows out of the kidneys and go back to the heart through renal vein.
How do they work? Each nephron has special structures called glomerulus and tubule. Glomerulus is where the blood is filtered for the first time. Then the tubule drives necessary substances required by the body return to the blood and get rid of ‘real’ wastes.
Glomerulus has a cluster of tiny blood vessels. When blood goes there, larger things (including blood cells and proteins) are filtered so they remain in the blood vessel. And smaller things (mostly water, including smaller molecules) can pass and go into the tubule.
A blood vessel runs throughout the tubule. As the fluid from glomerulus moves along the tubule, necessary smaller things such as nutrients and minerals your body needs are reabsorbed back by the blood vessel. And the real wastes, including excess acid, are removed through urine.
Most of fluids and substances in the tubule return to the blood. Only about 1-2 quarts are finally converted to become urine.
Where kidney pain is felt
Since the kidneys sit against your back muscles, sometimes we mistakenly kidney pain for back pain. On the other hand, early diagnosis is crucial to treat the problem more effectively.
Early treatment would induce better prognosis! That’s why it’s important to keep alert whether it is just back pain that responds to lifestyle measures or vice versa.
Kidney pain if left untreated could be fatal since it may signal serious health conditions. There are several causes of this pain, these include :
UTI, urinary tract infection! As the name suggests, it is a condition in which infection affects urinary tract (urethra, bladder, ureters, and kidneys).
Blame it on microbes, especially bacteria (mostly). In less common cases, UTI is caused by fungi or viruses.
The bad news, UTI affecting upper urinary tract (kidneys) are relatively more dangerous than lower tract UTI (urethra or/and bladder). Because there is a chance for bacteria to penetrate into the bloodstream from the infected kidney, causing serious complications such as a sudden drop in blood pressure and shock.
Fortunately, upper tract UTI is not as common as lower tract UTI. Nevertheless, lower tract UTI could also cause kidney infection.
Kidney stones! Here the stones mean solid mass that looks like crystals, and they can be large enough to cause obstruction and pain. The stones vary according to the materials what they contain (uric acid, calcium, struvite, or cysteine).
The stones usually form originally in the kidneys. But sometimes they also develop elsewhere in other parts of the urinary tract.
Can you prevent kidney stones? Yes, they’re preventable. Keeping hydrated by drinking enough water throughout the day is a powerful preventive measure. This is vital to get proper amount of urine to pass so you can flush your kidneys healthfully .
Polycystic kidney disease, a genetic condition in which there are clusters of cysts form in the kidneys. Although the cysts are not malignant (noncancerous), they can grow and become large enough to interfere with kidneys function.
It runs in families, the main risk factor is a family history of the same condition. It could be painful, plus would also increase your risk of developing kidney stones and UTIs. In severe cases, it may lead to kidney failure since it can cause serious damage to the kidneys.
Comprehensive monitoring is usually necessary. The disease currently has no cure.
Also there is no exact way to prevent it, but it’s manageable. With comprehensive and appropriate treatment, it’s possible to keep the kidneys work longer and healthfully.
What else? Again, a number of factors and conditions can lead to kidney pain. Other possible causes are as follows:
- Blood clots that form in the kidneys. The clots can prevent the affected kidney from removing waste from the body, leading to pain and renal hypertension.
- Injury /trauma affecting the kidneys. This can occur from a strong contact to the kidneys – car accident and sport’s injury for examples.
- Bleeding in the kidneys, which may also cause blood in the urine. The bleeding could be a consequence of problems affecting kidneys such as kidney stones, UTI, kidney infection, kidney injury, kidney inflammation, etc.
- Renal cancer, more common in elderly people (over the age of 60).
The location of the pain is one of indicators we can use to help rule out the underlying cause, though it’s not everything for accurate diagnosis.
So when the pain is actually arising from the kidneys, where do you feel it? First off, let’s explore more about back pain since many times it’s hard to tell whether the pain is coming from the kidneys or the back.
Back pain (brief summary)
Back pain is a common symptom that can affect anyone. It can be attributed by lots of things. But mostly it has to do with problems affecting muscles, nerves, or bones in the back.
And it’s much more common than kidney pain. About 80 % of adults, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, will experience this symptom at some point of their lives .
The features of back pain, including where it is felt, can vary depending on the underlying cause of the pain. It can flare up anywhere in the back, but mostly it occurs in the lower back or buttocks.
Type of back pain! Muscles pain in the back usually feels like a dull ache or stiffness, affecting one or both sides of the back. This type is likely to occur in the back locally, not spread elsewhere in the body. Certain movements would make the pain get worse.
Nerve pain in the back is likely to feel like sharp and burning sensation. It can spread elsewhere, traveling down the buttock or even lower leg for example.
Bone pain affecting the back usually has to do with vertebral fractures or problems affecting the spine. The pain in such case may strike suddenly. The severity ranges from severe to moderate, and the pain often gets worse in response to your movement.
Accompanying symptoms! Back pain, depending on what causes the pain, may also come with other symptoms. These include :
- Muscle spasm, making it hard to stand up straight.
- Walking difficulties, numbness, or weakness on the legs (especially for nerve pain).
- The spot of the pain becomes tender or more sensitive to touch.
It’s also possible for the pain to come with problems of bowel movements (constipation or diarrhea) or problems of urination (over urination for example). In such case, probably something is pressing the nerves of your spine – this could be serious, immediate medical intervention is necessary!
Where is the kidney pain location – How to identify it?
Accurate diagnosis is necessary so you will get appropriate treatment to carry a complete relief. Since many factors can contribute to kidney pain, comprehensive evaluation is important. This article is for general information only — see your doctor or healthcare professionals for more guidance!
Unlike back pain, kidney pain (also called as renal pain) is likely to feel deeper. It could be intense enough to interfere with your daily routines, depending on how severe it is and what causes the pain.
The location of kidney pain is usually in your sides (middle, flank area) to higher up the back. Flank area is either side of the spine between your hips and the bottom of your ribcage. This is reasonable since the location of the kidneys is underneath your ribcage, as mentioned earlier.
Kidney pain may also feel like dull ache in the upper abdomen. But the pain in such case is often not related to the kidneys.
The pain could be in one side (right or left of the spine flank area) if only one kidney is affected, or in both sides when the two kidneys are affected. In most cases it has to do with only one kidney .
Also, the pain may radiate elsewhere of the body. Besides upper /lower abdomen, it could also be severe enough to radiate elsewhere such as the groin and thigh.
What to remember, having pain in the flank area or in the upper back doesn’t always necessarily mean that you have a problem with your kidneys. A number health conditions can contribute to cause the pain, these include:
- Poor posture. Posture is a necessary thing to hold the body while performing tasks (e.g. bending, pulling, and lifting). If your posture is poor, your spine is incorrectly aligned. As a result, this makes upper or lower back pain more likely.
- Dehydration. You’re probably surprised at how lack of liquid can hurt your upper and lower back. There are several reasons – one of them is because dehydration provokes a build-up of wastes in the body, as a result your kidneys will work harder. Over time, this may also cause UTIs and kidney stones.
- Osteoporosis. People with osteoporosis are at high risk of developing a fractured vertebra (small bones of the spine), leading to pain in the back area (including in the upper back, depending on where the fracture occurs) .
- Arthritis, especially spinal arthritis. It can cause painful inflammation in the spine. This chronic inflammatory condition may have to do with autoimmune abnormality, wear-&-tear with age, infection, or other conditions .
Other common culprits to blame for flank pain include; muscle spasm, pinched nerve in the back, bladder infection, and Tietze’s syndrome. The pain is also less commonly related to appendicitis, pancreatitis, pneumonia, shingles, inflammatory bowel disease, and abdominal aortic aneurysm (swollen of aorta walls) 
So to find out whether your pain is kidney pain or something else, the location of the symptom is usually not enough for accurate answer. As mentioned earlier, other factors must be taken into account – other main ones are as follows: