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

cartoon woman with hand on back in pain

Back pain is a very common problem that can occur due to muscle pain, bone pain, nerve pain, arthritis, and spinal disk problems. Most back pain episodes can be relieved with home remedies and over-the-counter medications. 

However, you can easily mistake kidney pain for back pain. Kidney pain can occur due to kidney stones, infections, polycystic kidney disease, and more. These are serious conditions that require treatment from a healthcare professional. 

So, how do you tell the difference between back pain and kidney pain? Please continue reading to find out. 

What are the causes of kidney pain?

The kidneys are small fist-sized organs located on either side of the spine below the rib cage. You can often feel kidney pain in the area where the kidneys are located. It's frequently described as a dull lower back or side ache. 

There can be many possible causes why your kidneys hurt. Often, this includes serious problems that require immediate treatment. Kidney pain can be from the kidneys or related organs of the urinary system, like the urinary bladder. Some of the causes of kidney pain include:

  • Kidney stones (sudden sharp pain, stabbing pain, or shooting pain on one side)
  • Urinary tract infections or kidney infections (pain in the back, sides, or groin accompanied by fever)
  • Kidney injury due to blunt force trauma (lower back or flank pain and tenderness)
  • Hydronephrosis or kidney swelling due to a blockage (pain in the side or back that travels to the groin)
  • Kidney cysts (dull back in the back, side, or upper belly)
  • Polycystic kidney disease (pain in the back or side)
  • Renal vein thrombosis or blood clots in the kidney vein (flank pain)
  • Kidney cancer (pain in the flanks or sides)

What are the symptoms of kidney pain?

Some of the characteristics of kidney pain include a constant dull ache or a sharp severe pain that comes in waves. Kidney pain symptoms may include lower belly pain, pain on one or both sides, or pain in the back. Sometimes, kidney pain spreads to the groin area. Also, when the pain is due to kidney issues, there can be accompanying symptoms like fever, vomiting, pain with urination, and bloody urine or cloudy urine, depending on the reason why you’re experiencing kidney pain.

You should contact your healthcare provider immediately if your pain is sudden and severe or if you have blood in your urine. Also, get immediate medical attention if you might have suffered kidney trauma, for example, during a fall or motor vehicle accident.

What causes back pain?

Back pain frequently occurs due to ligament strains, muscle spasms, muscle cramps, and strains of the back muscles. Low back pain can occur due to bulging or ruptured spinal discs in the lumbar spine. It can also result from irritation and inflammation of the sciatic nerve. Osteoarthritis of the lower back can cause spinal stenosis (narrowing of the space around the spinal cord), which can lead to nerve pain. Osteoporosis (brittle bones) can lead to spinal fractures and back pain. Less common causes of back pain include spine tumors and cauda equina syndrome. 

What are the symptoms of back pain?

Back pain can cause a dull muscle ache or a sharp, shooting, stabbing, or burning sensation. The pain can spread down one inner thigh or both. Back pain is frequently made worse by movements like bending, lifting, twisting, or standing for long periods. 

Mild back pain may improve with home remedies like rest and over-the-counter (OTC) pain pills. However, you should see a healthcare provider if you have suffered a fall or other injuries. Also, seek medical attention if your back pain is severe and OTC medication does not relieve pain. See your doctor if you have back pain that travels down one or both legs or if you have other symptoms like weakness, numbness, bowel or bladder problems, or fever. 

How to tell if it’s kidney pain vs. back pain?

Here are some clues that can help you tell the difference between kidney pain and ordinary back pain. 


Kidney pain is generally located higher in the back. It may be felt on one or both sides. Back pain typically affects the lower back and is usually present on both sides. 


Kidney pain tends to be dull and constant. However, it can be sharp if it’s due to a urinary tract infection or small kidney stones causing a blockage. Back pain can be dull or stabbing and may shoot down one leg. 

Positional Changes and Activities

Kidney pain is often constant and does not change with changes in position or activities. Back pain may get better by adjustments in a position such as lying down and be worse with activities like lifting heavy objects, bending, twisting, etc. 

Other Symptoms

Kidney pain may be accompanied by other severe symptoms such as fever, tiredness, and body aches. 

What’s the treatment for kidney pain?

Kidney pain treatment depends on the underlying cause. Your doctor may order tests such as urine tests and imaging studies (ultrasound, CT scan) to find out what’s happening. Based on the results of these tests, your doctor will recommend the appropriate treatment for your kidney problems. For example, they may prescribe antibiotics for a kidney infection or a medication to help you pass a kidney stone.

What’s the treatment for back pain?

Most back pain episodes get better with rest, over-the-counter pain relievers, and muscle relaxants. However, back pain is a complex problem, and you should seek professional medical care if you have severe or chronic pain that doesn’t go away after a few weeks of home treatment. Your doctor may prescribe physical therapy or more definitive treatments like cortisone shots. Sometimes, you may need to have a surgical procedure to relieve chronic back pain. 


  1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17688-kidney-pain
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20369906