Understanding Kidney Pain vs. Back Pain

Kidney problems are one cause of referred back pain

Back pain is an incredibly common problem. Most of the time, the problem arises from the spine and surrounding areas. However, an internal organ, like the kidney, can sometimes cause pain in your back or side. 

This article discusses the different characteristics of back pain and possible underlying causes.

Close up of a woman bending over touching her lower back in pain.

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Characteristics of Kidney Pain

Your kidneys are positioned below your rib cage on both sides of your spine. Because of the location of the kidney and the types of nerves involved, kidney pain may feel like it is coming from another part of your body—often your upper back.

This type of pain is sometimes called referred pain. Because of how these nerves work, it isn’t always obvious whether pain in your back is coming from a more external problem (e.g., a herniated disc) or an internal organ, like your kidneys.


Pain from kidney injury is often described as flank pain, pain affecting the side of the body between the ribs and the hips. Alternatively, you might feel pain in your back near your lowest ribs.

While many experience pain on just one side of the body, it's not unlikely to have pain on both. The pain is often felt higher up your back, unlike low-back pain.


Many different problems with the kidney and related systems can cause pain. Some of these include:

Some people with kidney pain have additional symptoms. For example, a kidney infection might be the source if you’ve had a fever and recent signs of a urinary tract infection (UTI).

UTIs and Kidney Infection

UTIs are an especially important consideration for women, who get them more often than men. Seek medical attention right away if you have potential kidney pain and fever or chills, pain with urination, urinary urgency, blood in your urine, nausea and vomiting, or other severe symptoms.

Back Pain Not Related to Kidneys

Back pain not caused by kidney issues is extremely common. In fact, low-back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Most people suffering from back pain have a problem with the spine and surrounding areas rather than an internal organ like the kidney.

This type of pain is called mechanical back pain. Sometimes this problem is due to a specific anatomical issue, but often, an exact cause cannot be found.


Pain arising from the spine usually affects the lower part of the back and often on both sides. It usually doesn't wrap around the sides of your body.


Some potential causes of back pain include:

How Do You Know If It’s Your Back or Your Kidneys?

A healthcare provider can help determine whether your pain is due to a back or kidney issue or another medical condition or injury.

Pain resulting from a kidney issue tends to have different characteristics than back-related pain. Pain from the kidneys tends to be dull; you might sense that it stems from deep within your body. It's often felt higher up your back and doesn't go away when you rest or shift positions.

In contrast, pain from a back problem is often felt in your lower back. It may feel like a stabbing sensation and may radiate down your legs. The pain may worsen during certain activities or improve when you rest or change your position.

If you don't usually have back pain and are experiencing new pain on your side or upper back without any known injury, a kidney problem, such as a kidney stone, may be causing it.

Which Type of Healthcare Provider Should You See?

If you have back pain but aren’t sure what is causing it, you should schedule an appointment with your regular healthcare provider. They should have the training to help spot a potential kidney problem. 

Basic blood work and urine tests can help flag most kidney problems. If you have an issue requiring diagnosis or care by a kidney specialist, your primary care provider will likely make a referral.


Because of its anatomy, kidney problems can sometimes (but not always) cause back pain. This pain does not result from a problem with your spine or surrounding areas. 

Pain from the kidneys is often felt on the upper back and may wrap around the side of your body. It is usually one-sided, dull, and hard to pinpoint the exact location it comes from. In contrast, pain from a spinal problem more often affects the lower back, affecting both sides; it may improve with rest or a change of position.

Although a kidney problem isn't the most common cause of back pain, it can indicate a more severe issue like kidney stones, a kidney infection, or another medical condition. If you have back pain, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider for an evaluation to determine its cause.  

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you test your kidneys at home?

    In recent years, manufacturers have developed at-home blood and urine tests that you can use to get basic information about your kidneys. However, these should not replace being evaluated and diagnosed by a healthcare provider, especially if you have additional symptoms or severe pain.

  • Would you know if you had kidney symptoms?

    Not necessarily. Many people with kidney disease don’t have any initial symptoms. People with more advanced conditions may have symptoms like fatigue, increased susceptibility to infections, or fluid retention. Symptoms from a chronic (long-term) problem (like diabetic nephropathy) may differ from a sudden problem, like a kidney infection.

  • What could be confused for kidney back pain?

    Most commonly, an underlying issue with your back itself. But problems with other internal organs can also sometimes cause back pain, like an aortic aneurysm, appendicitis, pelvic inflammatory disease, or problems with the ovaries or testes.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Your kidneys & how they work.

  3. Thia I, Saluja M. An update on management of renal colic. Australian Journal of General Practice. 2021; 50 (7). doi:10.31128/AJGP-11-20-5751  

  4. Herness J, Buttolph A, Hammer NC. Acute pyelonephritis in adults: rapid evidence reviewAm Fam Physician. 2020;102(3):173-180.

  5. Office on Women's Health. US Department of Health and Human Services. Urinary tract infections.

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  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic kidney disease basics.

By Ruth Jessen Hickman, MD
Ruth Jessen Hickman, MD, is a freelance medical and health writer and published book author.