Sixteen million adults in America – nearly eighty percent of all adults – will experience chronic back pain in their lives. In fact, back pain is one of the most costly conditions for healthcare in the United States, costing over twelve billion dollars every year. This kind of pain can affect anyone, regardless of age or income. However, 41% of adults experiencing back pain are in the 18-44 age range.
Sometimes, back pain is simply muscle strain. It can also be a sign that something is wrong with a nerve, such as in the case of a herniated disc. However, because the kidneys are located in the back, many people can mistake signs of serious kidney conditions by thinking of their pain as being “just” back pain. You can compare the symptoms and, in conjunction with your circumstances, risk factors, and other factors, use this tool to determine whether you need to contact your doctor to discuss next steps.
Kidney Function and Disorders
The kidneys are an important part of the renal, or urinary, system in your body. Their job is to remove waste from the blood. The urine that kidneys produce comes from excess waste in the blood. The kidneys also balance the fluid in your body, release blood pressure regulating hormones, and control the production of red blood cells. Damage to the kidneys can result in a toxic build-up of waste and fluid in your body, causing your other organs to fail.
There are both acute kidney disorders and chronic kidney disorders. Acute kidney disorders usually have just a few specific causes and happen suddenly, while chronic kidney disorders have a more varied array of causes and can last for months or years. Both forms can cause significant kidney pain.
Back Pain vs. Kidney Pain Symptoms
Back pain can develop anywhere in the back. Low back pain is the most common and is considered an enormous healthcare problem for providers. Pain can be severe or mild, chronic or acute. Sometimes back pain can cause pain in other areas of the body as well, such as the neck, shoulders, or legs. Back pain often radiates down into the buttocks or legs. This form of pain can also manifest as stiffness or tenderness in certain areas.
In comparison with back pain, kidney pain is usually characterized by a dull and constant ache in the lower back, usually only on one side. You may also feel pain under the rib cage or in the belly area. Kidney pain, in addition to the constant dull ache, may also cause waves of sharp, severe pain, and this pain can spread to your groin area or your stomach area.
Other symptoms you may notice with kidney pain include:
- Difficulty urinating
- Pain during urination
- Cloudy or bloody urine
If you are experiencing kidney disease, there are often other symptoms, depending on the disease you have. These symptoms can include:
- High blood pressure
- Metallic taste in your mouth, like copper or blood
- Loss of appetite
- Chronic fatigue
- Sleep disturbances
- Swelling in your feet and ankles
- Unexplained itching
- Chest pain
- Trouble breathing
If you are experiencing these symptoms in addition to kidney pain, seek professional medical help immediately.
Back Pain vs. Kidney Pain Causes
Because the back entails a fairly large part of the body, the causes for back pain are many and varied. The most common causes are inflammation, strain to the muscles or ligaments, physical trauma like that sustained during a car accident or sports injury, bulging or ruptured discs along the spinal cord, arthritis, and osteoporosis.
Kidney pain is usually caused by more specific causes. The most major cause behind acute kidney pain is a urinary tract infection. This is an infection in any part of your urinary system. When it spreads to the kidneys, it is at its most dangerous stage. If the infection has reached your kidneys, you are at risk for sepsis, which is a potentially fatal complication of infection.
Pain in the kidneys may also be caused by kidney stones, kidney infection (also called pyelonephritis), swelling of the kidneys (hydronephrosis), and trauma to the kidneys. Chronic kidney diseases also may cause pain.
Chronic Kidney Disease
Kidney failure usually begins with the onset of a chronic kidney disease. These diseases gradually decrease the function of your kidneys until they fail to remove waste properly, leading to toxic buildup within your body. There are many conditions that can cause chronic kidney disease.
- Diabetes, types 1 and 2
- Chronic high blood pressure
- Glomerulonephritis, inflammation of the filtration parts of the kidney
- Interstitial nephritis, inflammation of the surrounding parts of the kidney
- Polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disease where cysts build up frequently in the kidneys
- Prolonged urinary tract obstruction, such as that experienced alongside prostate cancer
- Vesicoureteral reflux, a condition that causes urine to build up in the kidneys
Back Pain Risk Factors
There are certain lifestyle, medical history, and other factors that can make you more vulnerable to back pain.
- Age: You are more likely to develop back pain as you age. Most people first experience back pain between the ages of thirty and fifty.
- Fitness level: Those who lead a more sedentary lifestyle are more likely to develop back pain. This is true especially for those who are sedentary during the work week but try to make up for lack of exercise on the weekend.
- Genetics: Some forms of back pain disorders are caused by family medical history, such as arthritis.
- Job: Your job may cause you to strain your back. Workers who use an office chair all day, especially one that is not supportive, are at risk, as are those who use their backs in repetitive ways such as lifting, like construction workers.
- Smoking: Smoking can cause the discs along your spinal column to degenerate more quickly, thus causing back pain.
Kidney Pain Risk Factors
Chronic kidney disease has increased across the population, causing researchers to seek out preventable factors that can help you avoid such pain.
- Genetics and family history: Some forms of chronic kidney disease have a component that is inherited from family. 23% of patients experiencing chronic kidney disease reported having a family member or relative who also had a chronic kidney disease diagnosis.
- Race: Several studies have confirmed that Black and African American individuals are at elevated risk for being diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. At twenty years of age, Black men and women are around 7% likely to be diagnosed, compared to 1.8% of white women and 2.5% of white men.
- Age: Function of the urinary system decreases with age, much like other body systems. Thus, as you age, you are more likely to develop a chronic kidney disease. Your odds increase every ten years after you turn thirty.
- Socioeconomic status: People with an income equalling $16,000 per year or less are more than twice as likely to develop a chronic kidney disease.
Diagnosing Kidney and Back Pain
Usually, the first step of any diagnosis is a conversation with your doctor. They will listen to you list your symptoms and build a few hypotheses based on what you tell them. They may put you on a treatment plan right away, or they may want more information, especially if you are experiencing prolonged pain that hasn’t gone away with time, have any of the risk factors that may accompany more serious conditions, or if the pain seems to result from an injury or physical trauma.
Your doctor may send you for imaging, which is the word for mechanisms that help the doctor see inside your body. An X-ray can show doctors the alignment of your skeleton and help determine whether there is a problem with your bones causing the pain. MRI and CT scans tend to see more of the soft tissue in your body and can help reveal problems like a herniated disc or inflammation. Electromyography (EMG) tests help doctors understand the responses your nerves are sending in response to various stimuli. Ultrasounds can help doctors see whether kidney stones are present.
Your blood, and especially your urine, can tell doctors a lot about your kidney functions. The doctor may draw blood or ask you to urinate in a cup. The doctor will then send these fluids to a lab to be examined.
Back Pain Vs. Kidney Pain: What’s the Difference?
In general, kidney pain is accompanied by other symptoms. This pain is located in only one area of the back – the lower back, usually on one side, where the kidneys are located. The pain is usually dull and constant, with bouts of severe sharpness.
Back pain, on the other hand, can occur anywhere in the back. The pain can feel different depending on the cause, and there may or may not be coexisting symptoms.
Both kidney pain and back pain deserve your attention. If you are experiencing either, you should contact a medical professional to discuss your next steps.