Kidney Pain vs Back Pain

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Man with symptoms of back pain which can lead to a kidney pain

Overview

The kidneys are organs that can be found in the back of the upper abdominal area under the lower ribs on both the right and the left side of the spine.

Distinguishing kidney pain and back pain might be a bit challenging. Kidney pain can be felt under the ribs to the left or right of the spine and the pain is usually deeper and higher in the back. The pain could extend to other areas such as the abdomen, groin, or the sides. Back pain caused by muscle-related problems can usually be felt in the lower part of the back.

Kidney pain which is also known as renal pain is usually caused by kidney stones, kidney infection, or other types of kidney diseases while back pain is usually caused by muscle related problems or problems with the spine.

Kidney pain is pain felt due to an injury or disease to a kidney. Kidney discomfort or pain is not usually sharp and is a one-sided ache in the upper abdomen. Pain in these areas is often not related to the kidneys. Most conditions that cause kidney pain affect only one kidney. Kidney pain is usually accompanied by other symptoms such as fever and urinary symptoms. Kidney pain can either be acute, sharp, and relatively constant. This symptom appears when a kidney stone or other possible problems block the ureter which drains the kidney.

This kind of pain can affect anyone of any age but it is commonly seen in adults who are between 35 and 55 years of age. Back pain may be linked to the way the muscles, ligaments, and bones in the backs connect and work together.

Lower back pain may be associated with spinal cord and nerves, lower back muscles,
the discs between the vertebrae, bony lumbar spine, ligaments in the discs and spine,
the skin around the lumbar area, and pelvic and abdomen internal organs.
Pain experienced in the upper back may be caused by spine inflammation, tumors in the chest, and disorders of the aorta.

Back pains felt in the higher portion of the back are usually caused by kidney problems and are characterized by additional symptoms such as vomiting, fever, pain on the sides, and pain when urinating.

Causes of Kidney Pain

Here are some of the common reasons or underlying conditions that may cause kidney pain:

  • Nephrolithiasis, ureterolithiasis or kidney stones
  • Pyelonephritis or kidney infection
  • Rupture or enlargement of kidney cysts
  • Kidney tumor or kidney cancer
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Glomerulonephritis
  • Hydronephrosis or swelling of the kidney caused by a backup of urine
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Renal vein thrombosis or blood coagulation in the kidney veins
  • Bleeding in the kidney
  • Kidney laceration
  • Congenital malformations in the renal system leading to partial or complete blocking of urine flow
  • End-stage renal disease
  • Drugs, toxins, or medicines that harm the kidney tissue such as continuous use of ibuprofen and exposure to pesticides
  • Kidney pain during pregnancy
  • Enlarged prostate
  • Horseshoe kidney
  • Hindered flow of urine

Here are some of the possible reasons for pain around the kidneys which are not caused by or related to kidney problems:

  • Muscle pain
  • Muscle strains in the back
  • Problems with the ribs or spine
  • Pneumonia
  • Hernia
  • Problem with the liver or spleen
  • Fractures of the spine
  • Spinal abscess
  • Pleuritis
  • Shingles
  • Radiculitis
  • Aortic abdominal aneurysm
  • Retroperitoneal fibrosis
  • Gynecological problems

Causes of Back Pain

Back pain is usually caused by a problem in the muscles, disks, ligaments, bones, and tendons. Sometimes, the cause of back pain is unknown. The strain is the typical cause of back pain. The back strain or spasms may be due to an abrupt and awkward movement, lifting something too heavy, or lifting something improperly.

Here are the other possible causes of back pain:

  • Strained ligaments
  • Strained muscles
  • Muscle spasm
  • Arthritis
  • Abnormal curvature of the spine
  • Scoliosis
  • Bulging disks – causes more pressure on a nerve which leads to back pain
  • Ruptured disks – causes pressure on a nerve which leads to back pain
  • Sciatica – a sharp shooting pain that spirals its way through the buttocks and down the back of the leg that is due to a herniated disk pressing on a nerve
  • Osteoporosis – bones and the vertebrae of the spine become porous and brittle
  • Cauda equina syndrome – cauda equine is a bundle of spinal nerve roots that emerge from the lower part of the spinal cord
  • Shingles
  • Sleep disorders
  • Infection of the spine
  • Cancer of the spine
  • Infections such as pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Bad mattress
  • Poor posture

Back pain may also be caused by daily activities such as:

  • Bending awkardly
  • Pulling something
  • Pushing something
  • Lifting something
  • Carrying something
  • Twisting
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Muscle tension
  • Standing for long periods
  • Bending down for long periods
  • Over-stretching
  • Long driving sessions without having a break
  • Straining the neck when using a computer

There are some factors that are associated with a higher risk of getting lower back pain:

  • Anxiety
  • Obesity or overweight
  • Depression
  • Mentally stressful job
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Pregnancy
  • Age
  • Smoking
  • Strenuous physical work
  • Strenuous physical exercise especially when not guided properly

Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Pain

Kidney pain can be felt on the right kidney, left kidney, or both kidneys.

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Pain while urinating
  • Burning sensation while urinating
  • Pain in the lower abdomen or lower back
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Foul smell in urine
  • Cloudy urine
  • Blood in urine
  • Wetting the bed

Signs and Symptoms of Back Pain

Back pain is an ache or pain that is felt on any part of the back which may extend to the buttocks until the legs. There are some back problems that can cause pain in other parts of the body.

Signs and symptoms of back pain usually clear up on their own in a short span of time.

The following symptoms coupled with back pain requires medical attention:

  • Pain reaching the knees
  • Pain down the legs
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling or inflammation of the back
  • Persistent back pain despite resting or lying down
  • A recent blow, trauma, or injury to the back
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Peeing unintentionally
  • Losing bowel control
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Numbness around the anus
  • Numbness around the buttocks
  • Numbness around the genitals

Diagnosing Kidney Pain

If you are experiencing kidney pain and you have diabetes, high blood pressure, a heart disease, or a family history of kidney disease, it’s important to have yourself checked by the doctor because you are at risk for having kidney disease.

The doctor will have you examined through physical examination to know the underlying cause of your kidney pain. The procedures that may be recommended by the doctor are urine test to check for protein, a blood test to check the glomerular filtration rate (GFR), pregnancy test, and an ultrasound. The doctor may also recommend an MRI or CT scan of the pelvis and abdomen.

Protein in the urine is a sign of kidney disease that’s why urine test is used to check for protein in the urine. When the filters in the kidneys are damaged, protein can leak into the urine.

For GFR, a blood test measures how much blood the kidney filters per minute. The normal range for GFR is 60 or higher. Having a GFR below 60 signifies that you have a kidney disease.

Diagnosing Back Pain

Back pain is easily diagnosed by interviewing the patient and carrying out a physical examination.

Further tests are recommended if the patient or doctor suspects an injury to the back, if the pain is continuous and persists for too long, or if the back pain might be due to an underlying cause.

If a doctor suspects an infection, he/she may ask for a blood test.

X-rays show the alignment of bones and show if a patient has broken bones or arthritis but it cannot detect problems with the spinal cord, disks, nerves, or muscles.

MRI or CT scans show herniated disks or problems with nerves, tissue, ligaments, muscles, bones, tendons, and blood vessels.

A bone scan is used to detect compression fractures that may be caused by osteoporosis and bone cancers or tumors. A radioactive substance called tracer is injected into the vein. The tracer collects in the bones and helps detect bone problems with the help of a special camera.

Electromyography (EMG) measures the electrical impulses created by the nerves in response to muscles. This can help confirm never compression which may be brought about by a narrowing of the spinal canal or a herniated disk.

An osteopath, chiropractor, and a physical therapist’s help may also be recommended to diagnose the underlying cause of back pains.

Treatment of Kidney Pain

The treatment for kidney pain usually depends on the severity of the pain and the underlying cause. To treat the pain itself, ketorolac, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen may be taken as prescribed by the doctor. If the underlying cause is an infection, the doctor prescribes antibiotics.

Keeping yourself hydrated and drinking at least 12 glasses of water a day is the best treatment for kidney pain.

There are also some home remedies that can be used to treat the pain but these should only be done with consultation and guidance from a doctor. The following can be taken or applied to ease kidney pain:

Fresh coconut water

Tomato juice or tomato plaster

Cranberry juice

Lemon juice

Parsley tea

Watermelon seed tea

Basil tea

Corn silk tea

Celery seeds tea

Dandelion tea

Marshmallow root

Plantain

Cabbage leaves poultice

Peppermint and sage tea

Uva ursi

Willow Bark

Mustard plaster

Treatment for Back Pain

Back pain is usually treated with careful attention and home treatment. Painkillers may be prescribed by the doctor to address the pain. A hot compress or an ice pack can also help ease the pain. A patient can also be asked to rest for a couple of days.

If the back pain does not get treated with OTC painkillers, the doctor may prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug. The doctor may also recommend physical therapy, cortisone injections, cognitive behavioral therapy, massages, acupuncture, yoga, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and therapy from an osteopath or a chiropractor depending on the underlying cause of back pain.

Some surgical procedures may also be required if there is persistence in pain and nerve compression.