Kidney Pain: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

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A woman who suffers from kidney pain

1Overview

The kidneys are bean-shaped organs found in the upper abdominal areas against the back muscles on both the left and right side of the body. The function and purpose of the kidneys are to remove the excess fluid and waste products from the body.

The kidneys perform an important role in maintaining the body’s electrolyte and fluid balance, and at the same time, filter out waste that can be toxic to the body. When there is a problem with the kidneys, the patient may feel pain and discomfort.

Kidney pain, also dubbed as renal pain, refers to the pain from disease or injury of the kidney. The pain is usually called flank pain. Flank pain refers to the discomfort in the upper back and sides. Usually, flank pain may signal a problem in the kidneys. The kidneys are located at the back of the abdomen under the lower ribs. People with kidney problems may also experience other symptoms like fever, chills, and problems with urination.

2Symptoms

Kidney pain can register as lower back pain, which is located below the rib cage or the side of the back. The other signs and symptoms of kidney pain aside from lower back pain that signal a kidney problem include:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Change in the taste of food
  • Confusion or difficulty to think properly
  • Anemia symptoms
  • Symptoms of urinary tract infection – fever, painful urination and chills

3Causes

The possible causes of kidney pain commonly include:

Bleeding in the kidney (hemorrhage) – If there is hemorrhage in the kidneys, pain may be felt on the flanks or side of the back. The blood cells may also lead to the urine, which may signal an ongoing bacterial infection.

Kidney cancer – Kidney cancer is the type of cancer that starts in the kidneys. The tumor cells may develop and proliferate uncontrollably. As a result, it can spread to the other areas of the body.

Kidney cysts – Kidney cysts are circular pouches of fluid that form in the kidneys. These can be linked to serious conditions that may affect kidney function.

Kidney infection (Pyelonephritis) – Kidney infection is a condition wherein bacteria from the urinary tract travel to the kidneys and cause infection. It can be treated with antibiotics but can become serious if it’s left untreated.

The symptoms of pyelonephritis often appear within just a few hours. Most patients become shivery, sick, and feverish and have pain on the back or side of the trunk (flank pain).

The common signs and symptoms of kidney infection usually develop quickly, and these include:

  • Pain on the back or the side
  • Pain around the genitals
  • High fever
  • Chills or shivering
  • Fatigue
  • Anorexia or loss of appetite
  • Feeling sick
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Frequent urination
  • Strong and persistent urge to urinate
  • Burning sensation or pain when urinating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Urine that’s cloudy, or foul-smelling
  • Pus or blood in the urine

Kidney stones – Kidney stones, also called nephrolithiasis or renal lithiasis, are hard deposits made of minerals and salts that develop inside the kidneys. These stones can cause pain and discomfort, particularly if they increase in size.

Polycystic kidney disease – Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is an inherited disorder that occurs when many cysts develop in the kidneys. Polycystic kidney disease is an inherited health issue wherein the kidneys may develop small and fluid-filled sacs called cysts. Too many of these cysts may lead to serious health problems, including kidney failure.

These cysts are usually noncancerous but they can grow very large, affecting the function of the kidneys. Those who have the disease are born with the condition but it seldom causes noticeable signs and symptoms until the cysts become large enough to cause kidney problems. In most cases, the symptoms appear when the person is between 30 and 60 years old.

4Diagnosis

Usually, kidney disease is diagnosed through routine physical examinations. However, in some people, the severe symptoms may prompt in seeking medical help. The various diagnostic techniques will provide a glimpse of the disease and how severe it is.

Physical examination and medical history – The doctor will help notice the symptoms such as enlarged kidneys, high blood pressure and problems with urination. Moreover, the doctor will ask for your medical history, including familial diseases.

Blood tests – Some blood tests may show the function of the kidneys. These tests will give a glimpse if the kidneys have been affected by the disease.

Urine tests – Urine tests are also used because if the kidney does not function well, some of the elements such as blood or protein may leak into the urine.

Ultrasound – Ultrasound is the best way to diagnose polycystic kidney disease. This simple and non-invasive test can show the images of the small cysts in the kidneys.

Other imaging tests – If the doctor wants to make sure that the cysts are present in the kidneys, he may request for computed tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These can also detect the smaller cysts that are not seen during the ultrasound.

Genetic testing – This test will determine the presence of the abnormal genetic material, particularly for PKD. This can also get a sample of the parents, to determine which one is the carrier of the illness.

5Treatment

The treatment is focused on the underlying cause of kidney pain.

High blood pressure – High blood pressure is usually treated with medications. The commonly-used antihypertensive drugs include angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin-2 receptor blockers (ARBs).

Aside from medicines, high blood pressure can be managed through lifestyle changes like cutting on salt intake, engaging in regular exercise and eating a well-balanced diet.

Pain – For people experiencing pain, one of the most commonly used treatment is taking pain relievers. For pain, paracetamol is recommended. However, for more severe pain, stronger painkillers can be given. However, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen are not advised because they can disrupt the normal kidney function.

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) – Urinary tract infections (UTIs) can be treated with antibiotics for one week. The patient should also drink plenty of water while taking the medicines. This will promote urination and enhance the excretion of the pathogens from the body.

Kidney stones – For some people, small kidney stones can be passed out of the body during urination. However, in some cases, the kidney stones become too large to be passed out, a treatment like surgery is needed. A procedure known as extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) can be used where energy waves are used to break up the stones into smaller pieces.

Kidney failure – Kidney failure is a very life-threatening disease. Treating kidney failure is important. The patient may have various blood tests to monitor kidney function. For kidney failure, the two main treatments include dialysis and kidney transplant.

Dialysis involves a machine that replicates the function of the kidneys, it cleans the blood and takes out all the waste products. On the other hand, in a kidney transplant, a healthy kidney is removed from a living donor or a recently dead donor and implanted on the patient.

Kidney infection – Patients with UTI or kidney infections need to have an antibiotic therapy to be treated effectively. If you’re being treated at home, you will be prescribed a course of oral antibiotics between 7 and 14 days.

Usually, ciprofloxacin or co-amoxiclav is recommended, unless pregnant or breastfeeding. Antibiotics are usually the first line of drugs for kidney infections. The symptoms of the infection start to clear up within a few days of treatment. However, it is important to continue with the course until it’s finished.

Lifestyle management:

Load up on Vitamin C – To promote a healthy urinary tract, load up on vitamin C through diet and supplements. Getting plenty of foods high in vitamin is vital, because it makes the urine more acidic, inhibiting the growth of bacteria in the urinary tract.

Cut bladder irritants – Some bladder irritants may cause further inflammation. Avoid caffeine, spicy food, alcohol, nicotine, sodas and artificial sweeteners.

Cranberry juice – Some natural remedies include drinking cranberry juice to promote healing.

Use heating pads – Soothe your urinary tract infection with heat. The inflammation of UTIs cause pressure, pain and burning sensation in the genital area. Using a heating pad can help soothe the area and promote pain relief.

Urinate frequently – Drinking plenty of water induces urination. When you urinate frequently, the bladder expels the bacteria inside.

Drink plenty of fluids – Reduce the risk of kidney infection by drinking plenty of water. Fluids, particularly water, can effectively remove the bacteria from the body when you urinate.

Prevent kidney infection – Empty the bladder after sexual intercourse. You should urinate as soon as possible after intercourse to clear the bacteria from the urethra, decreasing the risk of infection. Also, wash the genitals before intercourse. Also, urinate after sexual intercourse to flush out the bacteria on the urethra and prevent them from entering the bladder and eventually, the kidneys.