Kidney Pain: Understanding its Many Causes

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Kidney Pain:  Summary and Overview

Kidney pain arises from infection of or injury to the kidneys. It is typically experienced in the flank, which is in the back, just below the ribs. It is usually sharp and intense, and comes in waves.

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Kidney Pain: Causes

There are several different conditions that could cause kidney pain.

  • Kidney Stones: these are hard calcium deposits that can become lodged in your ureter, the tube that connects your bladder to your ureter. They can block the flow of urine, and the pressure caused by the excess fluid causes pain. The pain caused by kidney stones is referred to as “colic,” meaning that it comes in waves as opposed to being a steady continuous pain.
  • Kidney infection or “pyelonephritis”: Kidney infections are caused by bacteria that travels up the urethra to the bladder and infects the kidneys. It is also called an upper urinary tract infection.
  • Kidney cancer: The two most common types of kidney cancer are renal cell carcinoma (RCC) and urothelial cell carcinoma (UCC), although there are other types. Kidney cancers are rare, accounting for 2 % of all cancers. As they grow, they press on the nerves surrounding the organ, causing pain.
  • Polycystic kidney disease: A hereditary disease called polycystic kidney disease can lead to massive enlargement of the kidneys over a period of years. If untreated and allowed to progress, it can lead to kidney failure. It can sometimes cause a dull aching pain, which is usually felt in the front of the abdomen rather than in the back.

Kidney Pain: Symptoms

The type of kidney pain experienced will usually depend on the condition causing it. Dull, aching pains may be a sign of polycystic kidney disease or kidney cancer. Sharp and intense pains are usually a sign of kidney infection or kidney stones. 

Both sorts of pain are experienced at the flank area of a person’s back, just below the ribs.

The dramatically named “kidney punch” is a kidney infection test where slight pressure is exerted on the lower back where the kidneys are located. When pressure is exerted, patients who are affected with kidney infection will feel intense back pain, which can feel like being punched in the kidneys, and can be intolerable.

Kidney pain is often accompanied by a number of other conditions depending on the cause. When it is caused by kidney infection, it can be accompanied by fever, dark or cloudy urine with a strong smell, burning sensation on urinating, persistent and frequent urge to urinate and/or blood or pus in the urine.

Kidney Pain: Diagnostic Tests

In order to correctly treat kidney pain, your doctor will do a number of tests to ascertain the condition causing it. A comprehensive physical examination and questions about your symptoms will be the first step towards a correct diagnosis. If he or she thinks that you have a kidney infection, they will most likely recommend urine analysis or urinalysis. On the other hand, if the doctor suspects another problem like kidney stones, he or she may recommend a blood test, X-ray, CT, or an MRI scan.  Intravenous pyelogram, retrograde pyelogram, abdominal x-ray or KUB, and ultra sonogram can also be used to ascertain the right diagnosis.

Kidney Pain: Treatment Options

The appropriate treatment for kidney pain depends on the cause.

Kidney Infections: The first line of treatment is antibiotics such as Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra)], quinolones [ciprofloxacin (Cipro, Cipro XR, Proquin XR), levofloxacin (Levaquin), cephalosporins, newer generation penicillins, and nitrofurantoin (Macrodantin, Furadantin, Macrobid).

Natural remedies that have been utilized include cranberry juice and the herb uva ursi.  The thinking was Cranberry juice is known to acidify urine, which prevents bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder. Uva Ursi is also known as bearberry. The active component, arbutin, has antiseptic properties, killing the bacteria causing the kidney infection. However, this is no longer recommended due to lack of evidence and the few studies show no benefit.

Kidney Stones: Treatment is directed at symptom control, and helping the kidney stone to pass. Patient are advised to drink plenty of fluids to try and wash the kidney stone through. Ibuprofen may be used as an anti-inflammatory medication. Though some have suggested natural remedies include cranberry and Aloe Vera juice, this can be problematic because cranberries make stones worse by contributing to oxalate build up and Aloe Vera juices have never been shown to do a thing for stones).

Kidney Cancer: the type of treatment will depend on the type of cancer, how advanced it is, where it is, etc. Possible treatments include surgery, biological therapy (immunotherapy), treatment to freeze cancer cells (cryoablation), treatment to heat cancer cells (radiofrequency ablation), treatments to block the blood flow to the tumor (embolization).

Polycystic Kidney Disease: treatment is usually a number of measures to tackle the disease and its symptoms. These can include drinking plenty of fluids to dilute the urine, a low-sodium, low-fat diet to control the progression of the disease, blood-pressure lowering medications, painkillers. If the condition is highly advanced, your doctor may recommend surgery to drain the cysts. 

Kidney Pain: Prevention

The best way to prevent the conditions causing kidney pain is to keep your kidneys as healthy as possible. Your kidneys flush out all the pollutants and waste from your body, so if you introduce fewer toxins (alcohol, cigarettes, recreational drugs), your kidneys will have less work to do.

In addition, you can keep your kidneys working beautifully by:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids, especially water.
  • Aim for a low salt diet: containing plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Exercise regularly: Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Ask your doctor what the right weight is for you.

Kidney Pain: Conclusion

Kidney pain arises from infection of or injury to the kidneys. The main causes are kidney stones, kidney infection or “pyelonephritis”, Polycystic kidney disease, and kidney cancer. Treatment depends on the exact disease or condition. There are a number of ways of preventing kidney problems including limiting your alcohol use and quitting smoking. Cranberry and Aloe Vera juices are good natural remedies.

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