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What does kidney pain feel like?

By , July 8th 2013. Last reviewed 24th March 2015.

Where are the kidneys located?

The kidneys are located in the middle-lower back, on each side of the spine, under and, partly, below the lower ribs (Picture 1). They lie deep in the upper abdomen, in front of the back muscles and underneath the diaphragm. kidney pain location

Picture 1. Kidney pain appears where the kidneys are located
(back view).

Medical terms:

  • Renal = related to kidneys
  • Renal colic = sudden, severe kidney pain
  • Hematuria = blood in urine

Where can you feel kidney pain?

  • In the back, near the lower part of the rib cage on either side of the spine (flank or loin pain) or/and…
  • Deep in the upper abdomen on the left, right or both sides

What does kidney pain feel like?

Kidney pain can be:

  • Sudden (acute), recurrent or persistent (chronic)
  • Mild or severe
  • Sharp, dull, throbbing or, rarely, cramping (colicky)
  • One sided or both-sided.

Kidney Disease Symptoms and Signs

Kidney pain is not very specific and can be confused with side pain arising from the spleen, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, colon, abdominal aorta (aneurysm), lungs, or lower back pain arising from the muscles, spine or spinal nerves.

Symptoms and signs that can speak for the kidney origin of the pain (1,3,4,7):

  • Frequent urination
  • Cloudy or foamy urine or blood in the urine
  • Tenderness in the flank(s)
  • Dull pain provoked by a slight punch by a fist in the kidney area
  • Nausea, vomiting, anorexia, fever, chills
  • Body swelling (edema)
  • A lump in the flank(s) or upper abdomen

Most of the conditions described below can appear in both children and adults.

Sudden (Acute), Severe Kidney Pain or Renal Colic

Kidney Stone Pain

Kidney stones located in the kidneys rarely cause pain but when they lodge in the ureter and obstruct the urine flow, they can cause the following symptoms that often start at night or in the early morning (2,4,34):

  • The pain often starts as a dull pain in the right or left flank and, within 30 minutes to few hours, becomes constant, sharp, severe, even extreme and typically lasts for 1-4 hours or even longer than 12 hours and then wears off; pain can radiate down to the lower abdomen, genitalia (testicles, vulva), groin or inner thighs (Picture 2). Sometimes, pain can appear in the form of sudden intermittent spasms (colic pain) that can last for 5-60 minutes, go away for a period of time (minutes, hours, days) and appear again.
  • Passing blood (pink or red urine) and, eventually, one or more stones in the urine
  • Nausea, dry heaving or vomiting
  • Fever is not a typical symptom of uncomplicated kidney stones without infection.

kidney stone pain location picture

Picture 2. Kidney stone pain
The pain from the kidney stones can be felt in the flank,
lower abdomen and genitalia

Obstruction of the Ureteropelvic Junction (UPJ)

Obstruction of the ureteropelvic junction (UPJ) or pelvi-ureteric junction (PUJ) is the obstruction of the upper part of the ureter due to congenital disorders, surgery or infection, most commonly in children. Main characteristics:

  • Occasional sudden flank pain, especially after drinking large amount of fluid, like alcohol or caffeinated drinks, or after taking diuretics
  • Sometimes: a palpable mass in the upper abdomen due to dilated kidney (hydronephrosis) and blood in the urine
  • References: (2,25,26)

Loin Pain Hematuria Syndrome (LPHS)

LPHS is a rare condition caused by infection, hormonal changes or use of oral contraceptives, mainly in young women. Symptoms:

  • Persistent or recurrent severe, burning or throbbing loin pain on one or both sides, which may be aggravated by moving or exercise
  • Occasional blood in the urine, fever or nausea
  • Symptoms may last from hours to months; the condition may persist for several years or can be lifelong.
  • Reference: (23,31)

Other Causes of Sudden Kidney Pain

  • Acute hydronephrosis–kidney enlargement caused by back pressure of urine–, mostly due to a lodged ureteral stone (7)
  • Blood clots in the ureter after a kidney injury or investigation, in kidney tumors, sickle cell anemia or hemophilia (2)
  • Acute renal infarction due to embolism of the renal artery, usually in individuals older than 50 years: main symptoms are sudden flank pain on one side and blood in the urine (2)
  • Renal vein thrombosis–a blood clot in the renal vein–as a complication of kidney inflammation, nephrotic syndrome, diabetic nephropathy or pregnancy (19)
  • Renal papillary necrosis–partial death of the kidney tissue–due to poorly managed diabetes, liver cirrhosis or long-term analgesic abuse, mainly in women (2)

Throbbing Kidney Pain

Throbbing, pulsating pain in the kidney area can radiate up or down the back and last for several seconds to minutes.

IgA Nephropathy (Berger’s disease)

IgA nephropathy is a type of kidney inflammation (glomerulonephritis). Symptoms appear within 72 hours after the onset of a respiratory or gastrointestinal infection and may last for up to 3 days:

  • Brown, cola- or tea-colored urine
  • Spasms or dull pain in both flanks
  • References: (10,18)

Other Causes of Throbbing Kidney Pain

Dull Kidney Pain

Kidney Infection (Pyelonephritis)

Kidney infections are much more common in women than in men. Symptoms develop quickly–in few hours or days–and may include:

  • Mild, dull ache, discomfort and tenderness in the left, right or both flanks
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • High fever and chills (not always)
  • Cloudy and smelly urine or blood in urine
  • Occasionally: loss of appetite, diarrhea, stiff neck
  • Symptoms of the infection of the bladder (cystitis) or urethra (urethritis): frequent urination, urge to urinate, burning pain during urination
  • References: (1,2,3)

Polycystic Kidney Disease

Polycystic kidney disease is a genetic disease with multiple cysts in both kidneys. Symptoms and signs:

  • Middle back or upper abdominal pain, swelling and a palpable lump in the upper abdomen on both sides
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Occasional blood in urine, foamy urine
  • Frequent urinary tract infections
  • Reference: (13)

Other Causes of Dull Kidney Pain

  • Renal abscess is a localized collection of pus in a kidney, usually as a complication of a urinary tract or systemic infection; it can present with a palpable mass in the loin, fever and chills (2).
  • Fungal bezoars may develop after kidney transplantation, in diabetes or during long-term antibiotic treatment (2,8).
  • IgA nephropathy (Berger’s disease)
  • Chronic hydronephrosis can develop due to gradual blockage of the urinary tract, for example, due to ureteral strictures (scars) after ureteroscopy, radiation or kidney surgery, or due to kidney stones (5,7).
  • Kidney cyst, tumor or cancer can present with gradual development of flank pain and occasional blood in the urine (9).
  • Renal artery stenosis–narrowing of the kidney artery due to plaque formation–can present with steady aches in the flank, blood in the urine and high blood pressure (20).
  • Compression of the left renal vein due to anatomical abnormalities, enlarged abdominal lymph nodes or tumors can present with the left flank pain and blood in the urine (22).
  • Idiopathic loin pain hematuria syndrome (LPHS) (12)
  • Retroperitoneal fibrosis is abnormal growth of scar tissue in the area around the kidneys, usually without a known cause. Symptoms: pain in the flank, lower abdomen, hips, buttocks or scrotum (2,30).

Bilateral Kidney Pain (in Both Flanks)

Disorders that can cause kidney pain on both sides at the same time:

Kidney Inflammation

Two main types of kidney inflammation are glomerulonephritis and interstitial nephritis. Causes include infections, for example, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis after bacterial throat infection (strep throat) (28), medication side effects and autoimmune disorders, such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Symptoms may include:

  • Pain in one or both flanks
  • Swelling of the feet, around the eyes or generalized swelling
  • Blood in urine
  • Foamy urine
  • Reference: (32)

Other Causes of Kidney Pain on Both Sides

  • Kidney infection (pyelonephritis) (6)
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Nephrocalcinosis–accumulation of calcium in the kidney tissue in various congenital disorders (medullary sponge kidney, primary hyperoxaluria, etc.); symptoms are like in kidney stones (14)
  • Bilateral hydronephrosis–enlarged kidneys on both sides–with lumps on both sides of the upper abdomen; causes: vesicoureteral reflux (backward flow of urine from the bladder into ureter), neurogenic bladder (after spinal cord injuries), ureteropelvic junction (UPJ) obstruction (15)
  • Loin pain hematuria syndrome (LPHS) (12)
  • Renal vasculitis–inflammation of the blood vessels in the kidneys–, for example, in polyarteritis nodosa, Henoch-Schönlein purpura, essential mixed cryoglobulinemia, microscopic polyangiitis, Wegener’s granulomatosis); symptoms: skin rash, low-grade fever (6,27)
  • Other (6):
    • Anaphylactic reaction (severe allergic reaction)
    • Arsine gas poisoning
    • Ethylene glycol poisoning (ingestion)
    • Haff disease after eating Buffalo fish
    • Muscle breakdown after severe muscle injury or limb compression (common in chronic alcoholics) and other causes of increased excretion of myoglobin in urine (myoglobinuria)
    • Paroxysmal cold hemoglobinuria
    • Retroperitoneal fibrosis
    • Sickle cell anemia and other causes of blood hemolysis, such as serum sickness and transfusion reaction
    • X-ray contrast toxicity

Kidney Pain After Drinking

In urinary tract obstruction, back pressure of urine can cause kidney pain within few hours of drinking large amounts of fluids or after taking diuretics; causes include:

  • A kidney stone that has stuck in the ureter
  • Ureteropelvic junction (UPJ) obstruction
  • Neurogenic bladder
  • Bladder outlet obstruction, for example, due to bladder cancer
  • Retroperitoneal fibrosis
  • A blood clot within the urinary tract due to bleeding caused by injury or kidney cancer
  • Pregnancy

Is kidney failure painful?

Usually, neither acute nor chronic kidney failure by itself is painful. Kidney failure means severe impairment of the kidney function, but, at least in the early stage, there is no severe physical damage and hence no pain. Symptoms of kidney failure are quite nonspecific and may include increased or decreased urination, fatigue, nausea, unintentional weight loss, pale and itchy skin, swollen ankles and hands and shortness of breath (16). Severe acute kidney failure may cause pain in the flank(s) (29).

31 Responses to What does kidney pain feel like?

  1. Justin Tasoulas says:

    i have itchy redness lump in my back ribs right where the kidney is caused from a car accident in march 1st 2005

    • Jan Modric says:

      Justin, my first thought was a blood collection (hematoma) under the skin that became fibrous (like an internal adhesion or scar). I strongly suggest you to get that checked to exclude more serious causes, like a tumor. An ultrasonography, for example, is a quick, cheep and quite informative investigation.

  2. Google says:

    Very good article. I am experiencing some of these issues as well..

  3. Tina says:

    I have a horrible kidney and bladder infection. My doctor has neglected this, it has worsened, hydronephrosis,let to go home though anti biotics were not working and not feeling well at all. Vomiting, 6 pd weight loss,severe sweats,abnormal confusion, my other complex health issues are worsening and nothing I can do for help. I am traumatized by going to the ER and how I’ve been treated over and over, so won’t go back. This is a very sad situation.

    • Jan Modric says:

      Tina, urinary tract infection is confirmed by urine culture test on basis of which a doctor can prescribe exact antibiotics, and if those do not work, some other antibiotics. If you really have an UTI, please go back to the doctor.

  4. Celina says:

    I’m getting spasms under the bottom part of my rib cage. (Left side )It seriously feels like someone squeezing on it . Then eases up and goes away for a mi then comes back .
    I noticed last month my husband and I went out for drinks and I woke up feeling like someone punched me in the ribs (both sides) and I got up to get water and the pain went away about ten 15 mins later…

    • Jan Modric says:

      If the pain is in the front, it may be from the gas in the part of the colon that runs horizontally below the rib cage. I cannot say if it is this or not, but if it is, it may be managed by observing which foods trigger the pain and remove them from the diet.

  5. rita owens says:

    I have stage lll kidney, 73 year old female and have started having pain in my RIGHT lower back and hip, right groin and right shin bone mostly when sitting for about a month. My kidney function labs have been stable and pretty good for over 6 months then this pain started. Could it be related to ckd or something else. What kind of doctor should I see. I have a medical dr., kidney specialist, neurologist, endrocrinologist and obgyn. Where do I start.Please help.

  6. Stephani says:

    I had a UTI a few months back that woke me up with severe kidney pain. Felt like someone took a baseball bat to my back. I took antibiotics and the UTI went away. I returned to the doc after my kidney pain persisted and tested negative for UTI. It’s been about three months and my kidneys still hurt. It’s more of a full, achy pain that comes and goes every few days and it will last for anywhere from one to three days. Today, after intercourse, I noticed some blood on the toilet tissue after using the bathroom. Should I be concerned about kidney disease at this point? I’m uninsured and worried about where to go considering my doctor hasn’t been very helpful so far.

    • Jan Modric says:

      Pain in the kidney area and blood on the tissue (if it is from the urine) suggest a kidney disease. Pain from stretched lower back muscles is more superficial and changes with the body movement and position, but kidney pain is less likely affected by the body position. The kidney inflammation or cancer could be suspected from changes in the simple blood tests, for example elevated white blood cells and sedimentation rate, but to get exact diagnosis, some imaging investigation (CT?) would be needed.

      I strongly recommend you to try to have at least some simple blood and urine tests done (a primary doctor can order them). I also strongly recommend you to check for ALL possible options for affordable insurance. If you are not very confident about your doctor, try to get in touch with some other doctor for a brief consultation, just to get the second opinion. A good doctor should be able to tell something on the basis of a physical examination and few non-expensive blood and urine tests.

  7. joan says:

    I am a 36 year old breast cancer patient who has had 8 rounds of chemo, surgery am currently undertaking my 6th & final week of radiation and have Herceptin through my Port every 3 weeks (my last being on Thursday last week). About 3 weeks ago I had a UTI which lead to thrush – it took 3 rounds of antibiotics & thrush treatment (first lot didn’t appear to work so was given a different type and then advised through further urine tests that my urine was ‘clear of infection’ and white cell count was good in bloods. Last Thursday evening I felt discomfort through my abdomen and right side which lead to the back. It is now early Monday morning and I still have a dull ache around the right kidney area which feels heavily bruised (and slightly hard) when touched. my urine appears normal with no cloudiness or discolour. I am urinating normal and my temperature is normal. I no longer have any UTI symptoms. I feel well accept for this sensation in my back. I will try to see my doctor again today but can you suggest what this may be?

    • Jan Modric says:

      Swelling around the kidney certainly suggests a problem in the kidney or surrounding tissues. An ultrasound, blood and other tests may reveal more.

  8. Annie says:

    I have had issues with my kidneys for the last two months. My right one is the worse. At the end of Oct 2014 I was seen by two doctors and one visit to the ER and nothing showed a Kidney Stone but I swore up and down the symptoms I had before all the visits was a kidney stone passing. It started with kidney pain that radiated down like period pain then I peed and there was a ton of blood. That is when I went for the first doc appt. The CT scan at the ER showed nothing remarkable. Last week I had symptoms of a UTI. I went to the Doc and got antibiotics, they didn’t work. Then I went to the doc three days later and they gave me different antibiotics (Cipro) and they sent my urine in for a culture test. This morning I woke up with the worst pain ever in my right kidney and bladder pain. I felt like I had to pee and when I did it hurt so bad I cried. I went to the same doc and they got my test results back that I don’t have a UTI (no bacteria) and now I have an appointment to see a Urologist Monday morning. However, I am in horrible pain and taking Vicodin to help ease the pain. It is helping with my bladder pain but not when I go or with my kidney pain. I guess I am confused, I have Googled kidney stones, cancer, cystitis and I don’t know if I can make it through the weekend but I feel like if the doc wasn’t worried I shouldn’t be.

  9. Saj says:

    I am a 19 year old male. I got a kidney infection when i was 18 about 18 months ago and it was treated with broad spectrum antibiotics. I then got a second infection after about a month after the first which occured on the day after drinking alcohol excessively. Since then i have constant kidney pain on both sides. It ranges from sharp and tight to dull, tender and sore. It usually feels better when i urinate. However eventhough i have this on and off pain for 12 months now i never actually have a kidney infection. All my urinalysis and cultures come back okay. I have had a ct scan and it was found that i have a malrotated left kidney. However my urinalysis never show protein, blood, leukocytes or anything. The doctors here are now sick of my compaints and just prescribe me pain killers. When i used to drink alcohol excessively before my infection i never got kidney pain afterwards but now i do. It is now getting to the point where the pain at times is there for months eventhough i dont drink any alcohol, only water and milk. What could be causing this pain, it must due to the previous infection i had but now i dont actually have an infection and i have this malrotated kidney, could this be a cause? Any help or advce would be appreciated. Thanks. I also get burning pains when i urinate sometimes but still no infection.

    • Jan Modric says:

      Malrotated kidney might be associated with a certain abnormality, for example pelvico-ureteric junction (PUJ) obstruction (read above in the article) that slows down removing the urine from the kidney (this may require a special urine flow investigation). When you speak with the doctors, you should mention burning during urination, pain relief after urination and the time pattern of pain with all eventual triggers you can recall. Urine tests other than for bacteria, for example, for the presence of calcium and urate crystals, may help a doctor to make the diagnosis.

  10. david says:

    I’m a 54 you male..for the past 3-4 myths I’ve been waking up with severe pain in my left lower quadrant in my back..it has been getting worse with time.also a lot of gas..and at the bottom front side rib is very sore to the touch. .also I’ve had some pain in my groin are as well this past week..plz advise…thank you!

    • Jan Modric says:

      The pain in the back and front can be from gas and gas is from the intestine. Common causes of excessive gas are large amounts of soluble dietary fiber (oats, barley, beans, peas, psyllium husk), fructose malabsorption (triggered by fruits like apples, pears or mangoes, honey or beverages sweetened by HFCS) and lactose intolerance (symptoms triggered by milk). It may help reduce gas and pain if you stop eating the mentioned foods for few days, but to find the exact cause of gas you might want to have tests as recommended by a gastroenterologist.

  11. Jane says:

    I hope someone can help me out. I have been experiencing pain in the mid upper back spine (right where a woman’s bra hooks up) when I drink any alcohol and sometimes when I eat or drink certain foods. I was told by a chiropractor to have my gallbladder checked. I did, and they found stones and removed my gallbladder. I waited a few months, tried to have a drink and got the intense pain in the back again. The pain is very intense and extreme and usually will only last 15 minutes and under and go away. I went back to my doctor and told him and he sent me in for a barium swallow test which shows I have acid reflux. I have been medicated for years on that. This pain has been here for over 12 years. I tried a drink after months of being medicated with acid flux medication but it still happened. I just stay away from alcohol and sort of gave up on figuring it out until recently. Now, sometimes when I eat or drink normal foods, I will get the pain but not as intense as drinking alcohol sets it off. It usually will try to start and I am very uncomfortable until it eases up. I looked at my online chart for past testing today and noticed that on a urine sample from 2012 I showed abnormal readings on….
    ’Specific Gravity, Urine’ normal range shows 1.005-1.030 and I tested at a >1.030 range and was flagged.
    Protein: normal ranged listed is NEG,TRACE mg/dl and I tested at a 30.
    Ketones: normal range NEG and I tested at a 1+
    Blood, UA: normal range NEG and I tested at a 2+

    All the other test for that was normal but I was flagged for the above. The doctor or anyone never called me to talk about this or to retest me. I sort of gave up trying to figure this weird pain and I now just try not to eat/drink anything to set it off. Do you think this has something to do with my kidneys?
    I would like to say, I have never been a heavy, consistent drinker which probably sounds like I have been, but it is the one thing that can set the pain into full gear quickly. My problem is that I am wondering if anyone has this pain and if the association was with the kidneys and maybe my doctor missed something.

    • Jan Modric says:

      Kidney pain is in the right or left flank, which is under the lower ribs, near the spine. So, it would be left or right, not in the middle. In certain kidney disorders, pain can be provoked by slight hitting with a fist over the kidney. Urine specific gravity can be caused by dehydration but I can’t exclude other causes.

      Gallstones typically can cause pain in the shoulder blade area. Gastric reflux can also cause pain between the shoulder blades. This article describes common causes of pain below or between the shoulder blades.

  12. melly says:

    Hi all, i am 30 and a mother of 5. I have neve had issues with UTI infections until now.
    I woke up 3 days ago with a fever so terrible i couldnt actually get out of bed. And my right kidney was absolutly killing me. The pain was close to labour pains! My husband rang thr ambos they drugged me up and took me to hospital. I did a pee test, it was established i had a kidney infecion steming from a uti. They gave me one big dose of IV antibiotics and sent me home with a 20 day course perscription. I got to script filled right away and started the course as directed. However today…3 days later….my sick feeling has gone but my kidney pain is back in full force, only now it is also under the front of my ribs. Has anyone been through this that could tell me? is it normal for kidney pain to get worse again like this? Any advice is perfect. I am at my wits end in pain now. I have a follow up tomoz with the doc but i thought i would try writing here first. Thanks all, Mel

    • Jan Modric says:

      Please go to the doctor immediately. It can be reinfection of the kidney, infection of some other organ by bacteria resistant to given antibiotics or pain from something other.

  13. Freidman says:

    I have recently been suffering from chronic kidney stones due to a medication I am taking. My urologist told me I have a renal kidney stone on my left side right now. However I am experiencing a dull and sometimes throbbing pain on that side, my urologist said I should not be having pain due to where the kidney stone is currently located. I am also experiencing some diarrhea. Is this something I should address with my PCP? How would I even explain it? I am so confused how can I have a kidney stone but it not be causing me pain right now. This is all very new to me.

    • Jan Modric says:

      It is true that stones limited to a kidney usually do not cause pain (but they could); the kidney pain might be also due to a kidney disorder associated with the stones. Kidney pain can be sometimes provoked by slight hitting over the kidney with a fist; such pain would be limited to the kidney and would not radiate widely around (check in the article above, where exactly kidneys are located).

      Kidney stones alone might not cause diarrhea, but an eventual kidney disorder associated with then stones may. Diarrhea may be also a side effect of medication, food poisoning, newly developed food intolerance or gastrointestinal disease.

      You can write down all symptoms as they developed trough the time, also describe the pain location, triggers and relievers exactly to the doctor. If you feel pain, it’s not a doctor who can tell you don’t. To confirm/exclude a kidney disease other than stones, some blood and urine tests can be done. You can also ask for an eventual alternative medication that does not cause kidney stones or for a diet change that may decrease the risk of stones.

  14. Zeeshu says:

    i am experiencing pain in my back along with flank region.. i use to have episodes of pain at the flank region but by having water it was relieved. But from yesterday iam having pain with much intensity in my back and flank region. is it serious?

  15. Bob says:

    My girlfriend has this consistent pain in her right side. She feels it, and it is very complicated. She suffers from UTIs and is at her wit’s end with this problem. She has been checked for kidney stones but they said there is none. Any other advice as to how to even ease the pain?

    • Jan Modric says:

      She needs to get a diagnosis first. If she has common UTIs, it’s possibly her right or both kidneys are affected too. I would advice against self-treatment with antibiotics because they can affect eventual urine tests for bacteria.

  16. Susan says:

    Hi. I am a 42 female. I have had bilateral throbbing pains in kidney area for 20+ yrs. They are usually worse on right side. There is no specific amount of time between attacks although they do seem to come on more if I haven’t hydrated well. During the intense attack ( sometimes painful enough to stop me and send me to the floor at times) if I drink 2-3 + glasses of water, the pain will quickly worsen and then ease away. I have no blood in urine, occasional uti’s usually after intercourse. I have never knowingly passed a stone either and the pains never last more than minutes. What could be possibilities? Thank you so much.

    • Jan Modric says:

      Symptoms you have described (throbbing pain, pain worse after drinking) can be caused, for example, by the obstruction of the urine flow out of the kidney. Two possible causes are ureteropelvic junction (UPJ) obstruction and kidney stones, or some anatomical deformity or polycystic kidneys. An ultrasonography can confirm/exclude some of these causes.

  17. liana says:

    I’m 32 yrs old female, i had a terrible UTI 4yrs ago and through ultrasound my doc saw cyst on my right kidney and said i shouldn’t worry about it and prescribed antibiotics and lots of water. Now i’ve been feeling pain and tenderness on either side of my lower back when I ate something salty or when I drink coffee. Please help. Thanks..

    • Jan Modric says:

      Kidney cysts can be sometimes painful, especially if they rupture; they can also get infected. I suggest you to visit a doctor again.

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