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How to Tell If You Have Back Pain or Kidney Pain

Are you experiencing pain in your back or your side? It could be back or kidney pain (flank pain), but how do you tell the difference?

According to the National Kidney Foundation, approximately one in three adults in the United States are at risk for kidney disease. While some people experience kidney pain due to a specific injury or infection, others may have underlying medical conditions contributing to the pain.

On the other hand, back pain is a common complaint affecting millions of Americans daily. Various factors, such as injuries or strains, can cause back pain. 

Read on to understand the key differences between back pain and kidney pain, their underlying causes and when you should see your health care provider.

Causes of back pain

“It’s estimated that 85% of Americans experience back pain during their lifetime,” said Samia Kadri, a family nurse practitioner with Banner Health. “While it can be painful, this pain often gets better within a few weeks without surgery.”

Back pain can have many different causes. Common causes of back pain are injuries like ligament strains, muscle spasms, muscle cramps and strains of the back muscles. 

“These can be caused by heavy lifting, improper lifting techniques, overuse, poor posture, as well as lack of regular physical exercise,” Kadri said. “Even sitting too long can cause back pain.”

People often will refer to this as “throwing their back out.”

On the other hand, issues with the nerves, discs or bone weakness can create deeper pain in the body. Some medical conditions like a slipped disc, sciatica or ankylosing spondylitis can cause this pain. 

“Very rarely, back pain can be caused by a serious disease or infection, such as cauda equina syndrome, metastatic cancer or spinal infections,” Kadri said.

Other potential causes include:

Symptoms of back pain

The symptoms you experience can vary, from localized pain in a specific spot to generalized pain all over the back. It can sometimes even radiate away from the back to other parts of your body, like your butt and upper thigh. The intensity of the pain can also come and go.

Depending on the type, cause or location of the pain, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • A dull ache or sharp, shooting or stabbing pain
  • Difficulty bending over, such as tying your shoes
  • Worsening pain when you lift, bend, sit, twist or stand

“Serious symptoms such as numbness or tingling in the saddle areas (where you sit on a horse saddle), numbness in the lower legs and feet, loss of bowel or bladder control, constipation or fever warrant an immediate visit to the emergency department (ED),” Kadri said.

Causes of kidney pain

Your kidneys are two fist-sized organs located below the rib cage on each side of the body (AKA your flanks). These organs are responsible for cleaning out water, toxins, acids and filtering waste from the blood by transforming them into urine, so everything is flushed out.

Because your kidneys are connected to the ureters (tiny tubes that carry urine) and the bladder, there are many possible causes for kidney pain. 

“Kidney pain may be caused by an infection like a UTI or kidney infection, kidney stones or direct trauma to the kidneys,” Kadri said. 

Other potential causes include:

  • Kidney cysts
  • Polycystic kidney disease (PKD)
  • Renal vein thrombosis (RVT)
  • Kidney cancer

Symptoms of kidney pain

Kidney pain symptoms can vary depending on the cause. 

“For example, with kidney stones, you may experience a sharp pain only on one side that comes in waves, but not everyone with kidney stones has typical symptoms,” Kadri said. 

The most common additional symptoms of kidney pain include:

“You should see your health care provider or seek urgent care if you have kidney pain that doesn’t go away,” Kadri said. “If you have complicated UTI symptoms with a fever, chills, nausea and vomiting, you may be directed to the emergency department for further evaluation.”

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

As you can see, it can be tricky to distinguish what is causing your pain because of how close the pain areas can be. Here are some clues that can help you differentiate between the two.

  • Kidney pain can be felt in the flanks below the rib cage on one or both sides. 
  • Back pain can be felt anywhere on the back, but it is often felt in the lower back.
Type of pain
  • Kidney pain may be sharp and come and go in waves or come as a dull, constant ache.
  • Back pain may be a dull ache or shooting pain. It may worsen with certain activities or improve when you rest. 

If the problem isn’t clear, see your health care provider to determine the cause before treating it at home. They have the proper training to spot whether you have a kidney problem or an issue with your back and prescribe appropriate treatment.


Back pain and kidney pain may seem similar but have different causes and symptoms. Overall, paying attention to the signs of pain and discomfort in your body is essential.

If you’re experiencing pain, talk to your health care provider. They can help determine the cause of your pain and the best course of treatment.

To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.

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