Lower back pain can be debilitating. Finding the root cause of it can be nearly as frustrating. Part of the reason is the complexity of the human muscular-skeletal system, and the fact that so many stresses from our erect posture can come home to roost in our lower backs.
The source of back discomfort can be muscular in nature, such as back spasms or a pulled muscle. Or it can be related to our skeletal system, ranging from hip and pelvic injuries to a misaligned spine compressing nerve tissue. But lower back pain can also be attributed, in certain instances, to internal organs, and specifically kidney problems.
Kidney pain, ranging from mild infection and kidney stones to acute renal failure, can often be mistaken for lower back pain because that's exactly where they're located. Our kidneys -- two fist-sized organs responsible for maintaining a healthy blood composition -- are found just above our pelvic saddle, one on each side of our spine [source: Freudenrich]. To make matters more complicated, pain from an infected kidney can even radiate to our hips and groin area.
A key factor is determining whether your lower back pain is accompanied by other symptoms of kidney infection, including fevers and high temperatures, an upset stomach, cloudy, bloody or malodorous urine, and more frequent urination [source: Fitzpatrick].
Want an expert opinion? Get the doctor's prognosis on the next page.
The Doctor's Prognosis
Concerned that your back pain could be related to a kidney infection? Here's how to tell the difference between back pain and a kidney infection, courtesy of Dr. Scott Fishman, chief of the Division of Pain Medicine and professor of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at the University of California, Davis.
"Pain stemming from a kidney infection typically is in the area of the back where the kidneys lie, located to the sides of the spine, just above the hips," Fishman says. "Kidney related pain often presents as tenderness in this area. Direct injury or trauma to the back -- over the area where the kidneys are located -- can cause injury to the kidneys themselves, and that is why getting struck in this area is commonly referred to as a 'kidney punch.'
"Kidney infection pain usually comes from the organ itself but often appears as back pain," he says. "Kidney pain is also quite tricky because it can radiate to many different parts of the body. It is also acute in origin, meaning that it usually has a very rapid onset, and typically does not last any longer than the infection in the kidneys last. Kidney infection pain goes away with the healing of a kidney infection, or passing of a kidney stone. Back pain from trauma to the back, however, usually does not go away this quickly."
Fishman also says pain from a low-back injury can initially appear very similar to the type of pain from a kidney infection. However, an injured back typically isn't worsened by gently pushing on the area of the back directly over the kidneys. And usually, there are other signs that clearly distinguish the difference between the pain from a kidney infection and back trauma. Symptoms from a kidney infection, for example, may also include pain with urination, fever, chills and blood in the urine that you can see with the naked eye or by laboratory analysis of the urine.
"On the other hand, an acute onset of back pain may be due to a particular injury, especially if the patient recently hurt themselves with activities," Fishman says. "I suggest to my patients who are young women with new onset of back pain (and) who may have a history of kidney infections, that they be tested for a possible kidney problem, since their history indicates that they may be prone to these infections."
Want to know more about taking care of both your back and kidneys? Keep reading for lots more information.
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- Fishman, Scott, M.D. "Back Pain and Surgery." Discovery Fit & Health. (June 20, 2011). https://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/pain/back/back-pain-and-surgery.htm
- Fishman, Scott, M.D. "Magnets as Pain Treatment." Discovery Fit & Health. (June 20, 2011). https://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/pain/medication/magnets-as-pain-treatment.htm
- Fitzpatrick, Paula. "Is Your Lower Back Pain Kidney Related?" Lower Back Pain Toolkit. May 25, 2011. (June 20, 2011). http://www.lower-back-pain-toolkit.com/back-pain-kidney.html
- Freudenrich, Craig, Ph.D. "How Your Kidneys Work." Discovery Fit & Health. (June 21, 2011). https://health.howstuffworks.com/human-body/systems/kidney-urinary/kidney.htm
- Mayo Clinic. "Kidney Pain." May 20, 2011 (June 21, 2011). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/kidney-pain/MY00125
- Medical Education Institute. "10 Symptoms of Kidney Disease." (June 19, 2011). http://www.lifeoptions.org/kidneyinfo/ckdinfo.php?page=4
- NetWellness. "Kidney Diseases." Last reviewed, Dr. Mildred Lam, Case Western Reserve University. Sept. 4, 2009 (June 20, 2011). http://www.netwellness.org/healthtopics/kidney/faq3.cfm
- Spry, Leslie. "Top 5 Kidney-Related Myths and Misconceptions." National Kidney Foundation. (June 20, 2011). http://www.kidney.org/news/wkd/5kidneymyths.cfm
- WebMD. "Acute Renal Failure." WebMD/Healthwise. Updated June 3, 2009. (June 19, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/acute-renal-failure-topic-overview