How to tell the difference between kidney pain and back pain

The kidneys remove waste products and excess fluid from the bloodstream. These two organs sit on either side of the body just below the rib cage. The kidneys rest against the back muscles, which can make it difficult to tell the difference between kidney pain and back pain.

When trying to determine whether the pain is coming from the back or kidneys, people need to take into account:

the location of the pain

the type and severity of the pain

any accompanying symptoms

In this article, we discuss the main characteristics and causes of kidney pain and back pain. We also cover when to see a doctor.

Kidney pain

The kidneys filter out waste and toxins from the bloodstream, which makes them susceptible to infection and damage. Excess calcium, oxalate, and phosphorous can accumulate in the kidneys to form kidney stones, which can be painful if they cause a blockage.


A person may feel kidney pain in the back, groin, and thigh.

Kidney pain occurs below the rib cage on either side of a person’s spine. It can also feel as though the pain is coming from deep within the body.

People may experience pain on one or both sides of the body depending on whether a condition affects only one kidney or both kidneys.

Kidney pain can radiate to other areas of the body, such as:

the sides




Type and severity of pain

Small kidney stones often pass through the urinary system without causing much pain. However, larger stones can cause a sharp, intense pain that typically worsens when the stone moves from the kidney to the ureters. The ureters are tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder and form part of the urinary system.

A kidney infection can cause a dull ache or soreness that remains stable.

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Accompanying symptoms

Conditions that affect the kidneys can cause other symptoms, such as:

cloudy or bloody urine

painful urination

a persistent need to urinate



constipation or diarrhea




Signs of severe kidney damage or problems can include:

bad breath

metallic taste

shortness of breath

swelling of the legs, ankles, or feet


irregular heartbeat

muscle cramps

Causes of kidney pain

Conditions that cause kidney pain include:

urinary tract infections (UTIs)

kidney stones

kidney infections

blood clots in the kidneys

trauma or injury to the kidneys

Back pain

Back pain is very common. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, around 80 percent of adults will experience lower back pain at some point during their lives.

Back pain occurs as a result of problems affecting the muscles, bones, or nerves in the back.

The location, severity, and accompanying symptoms of back pain vary depending on the cause.


Back pain can occur anywhere in the back. However, most people experience pain in their lower back.

Type and severity of pain

Muscle pain feels like a dull ache or soreness. Certain body movements can trigger or worsen muscle pain, the intensity of which can range from mild to severe and may fluctuate in response to stretching.

People with nerve pain may experience a burning or stabbing sensation that travels to other areas of the body.

Sciatica is a form of nerve pain that affects the back. People develop sciatica when the sciatic nerve becomes pinched or compressed, which causes a burning pain in the lower back that radiates through the buttocks.

Bone pain can result from vertebral fractures or an irregularly shaped spine. This type of pain comes on suddenly. Bone pain ranges from moderate to severe and usually worsens in response to movement.

Accompanying symptoms

Other symptoms that may accompany back pain include:

aches or stiffness along the spine

sharp, stabbing pain in the neck

finding it hard to stand up straight due to pain or muscle spasms

walking difficulties

numbness or tingling in the back that spreads to the limbs

weakness in one or both legs

inability to empty the bladder

loss of control over urination

diarrhea or constipation

Causes of back pain

A person may develop back pain due to poor posture.

Straining a muscle or ligament in the back is a common cause of back pain. People can strain their backs from overstretching, lifting too much weight, or using incorrect lifting techniques.

Other causes of back pain can include:

poor posture

standing or sitting for an extended period

muscle spasms

muscle tension

injuries to the back, such as fractures or falls

damaged, dislocated, or ruptured discs

abnormal curvature of the spine


Medical conditions that can cause back pain include:

inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis and spondylitis



cancer of the spine


cauda equina syndrome, which affects the nerves at the base of the spinal cord

abdominal aortic aneurysm


When to see a doctor

A person can often treat mild back pain at home with rest, heat therapy, and over-the-counter pain relievers. However, people should see a doctor for pain that results from a traumatic injury.

It is important for people with symptoms of kidney stones or a kidney infection to see a doctor.

A person should also seek medical attention for any of the following symptoms:

persistent or severe pain that does not improve after rest

back pain that gets worse over time

pain, numbness, or tingling that radiates down the legs or into the arms

difficulty walking or standing

swelling of the legs, ankles, or feet

unexplained weight loss

sudden bladder or bowel problems


irregular heartbeat

shortness of breath


The kidneys sit below the rib cage on either side of the spine and rest against the muscles of the back, which means that it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between back pain and kidney pain.

Kidney pain can occur on one or both sides of the back just below the rib cage. Causes of kidney pain include UTIs, kidney stones, and blunt force trauma to the kidneys.

Back pain can affect the entire back, but most people experience pain in the lower back. People can develop back pain from heavy lifting, poor posture, and sitting or standing for too long. Certain medical conditions, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and infections, can also cause back pain.

Recognizing the difference between kidney pain and back pain can lead to earlier diagnosis and a better treatment outcome.

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