What causes flank pain? 21 possible conditions

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What Is Flank Pain?

Flank pain refers to pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen or back. It is located below the ribs and above the pelvis and on the side. Flank pain basically refers to pain in your side and back. Usually, the pain is worse on one side of your body.

Most people experience flank pain at least once in their life, and it is usually short lived. However, constant or severe flank pain may be caused by a serious medical condition, such as an infection in the urinary tract or kidneys or dehydration. If severe flank pain occurs suddenly it could be from kidney stones. If it is chronic then it could be from several other causes.

Flank pain is often the sign of kidney problems, but it can also point to other medical conditions if it occurs along with other symptoms. If you experience chronic flank pain, it is important to talk to your doctor and go over your symptoms.

What Causes Flank Pain?

Various conditions, ranging from serious to harmless, can result in flank pain.

Some common causes include:

  • arthritis (especially arthritis that affects the spine)
  • infection in the spine
  • spinal fracture
  • disk disease
  • pinched nerve in the back
  • muscle spasm
  • kidney infection
  • kidney stones
  • kidney abscess
  • shingles
  • dehydration
  • conditions in the chest where pain is referred to the flank
  • pneumonia
  • pancreatitis and other conditions affecting organs in your abdomen
  • inflammatory illnesses of the bowel such as Crohn’s disease
  • occasionally a heart attack can cause pain in the flank

What Symptoms May Be Associated with Flank Pain?

Flank pain may be achy, cramp-like, or colicky—meaning it comes and goes in waves. Typically, kidney stones cause pain that is colicky and extreme. In the flank pain from kidney stones the patient has trouble lying in one position comfortably.

Flank pain may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • rash
  • fever
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • blood in the urine

You should call your doctor right away if you experience the following symptoms along with your flank pain:

  • chills
  • fever
  • vomiting
  • nausea
  • blood in the urine or stool
  • prolonged or excruciating pain

Dehydration is one possible cause of flank pain. Seek immediate medical care if you experience flank pain along with these symptoms of dehydration:

  • extreme thirst
  • lack of sweat output
  • dizziness
  • fast pulse
  • dry, sticky mouth
  • headaches
  • constipation
  • decreased urine output

Diagnosing the Cause of Flank Pain

During your appointment, your doctor will try to identify the condition causing your flank pain. Be prepared to answer questions about:

  • when the pain began
  • what kind of pain you are experiencing
  • what other symptoms you have
  • how often you experience the pain
  • if the pain is pain sudden and passing, or constant
  • if you have had a recent a decrease in output of urine or intake of fluids
  • Whether there is pain in other parts of your body

Your doctor will also use imaging scans and blood tests to diagnose your flank pain. Imaging scans—such as an ultrasound or X-ray—allow your doctor to look deep within your body. These scans can reveal problems in the organs, tissues, muscles, and bones. A scan is particularly important in the evaluation of kidney stones to look for obstruction. Your doctor may inject a contrast dye into your vein before the scan, in order to better view any obstructions within your veins and organs.

Other tests that may be performed are:

  • CT (computed tomography) scan of your abdomen
  • cystoscopy—a minor procedure that uses a small scope to examine your bladder
  • urinalysis—a simple urine test
  • urine culture—a test where a urine sample is checked in a laboratory for bacteria

Treating Flank Pain

Rest is the primary treatment for any form of flank pain. Minor flank pain can typically be treated with a combination of rest and physical therapy. Your doctor may also recommend specific exercises you can do for quick relief from muscle spasms.

For pain caused by inflammation—such as with arthritis, pinched nerves and infections—the treatment will depend upon the condition. If the condition is determined to be from arthritis in your spine you could benefit from physical therapy and an exercise program. Your doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication. This medication will relieve the inflammation and pain. It may also be necessary for you to have a surgical evaluation. If there is an infection you may require antibiotics. Often infections in the spine are very serious and require antibiotics and even hospitalization.

Both kidney infections and kidney stones may require hospitalization. If you have a kidney infection, you will be given antibiotics to rid you of the infection. In some cases, you may receive these antibiotics intravenously. If you have kidney stones, you will need to drink lots of fluids to encourage the passing of the kidney stone and take pain medications. In most cases, kidney stones do not require surgery.

If the kidney stone does not pass then lithotripsy (breaking up stones with high frequency sound waves) can be used to break up the stones within the kidney. Once the stones are broken down by lithotripsy then they can be passed through the ureters (the tubes that carry urine from the kidney to the bladder). Other surgical techniques may also be used to remove the stone.

Depending on your level of pain, your doctor will recommend over-the-counter drugs or prescription pain relief. If you have severe pain, you may need to receive pain relief and treatment at a hospital. Always seek immediate medical attention when you develop sudden and intense flank pain.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Kidney Stones

Kidney stones are solid masses of crystalized calcium or other substances that originate in the kidneys but can pass through the urinary tract. The greatest risk factor is making less than one liter of urine per day.

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2

Obstructive Uropathy

Obstructive uropathy is a condition in which your urine flow is blocked, and backs up into the kidneys. IIt may be caused by a blockage in one of the ureters - the tube that channels urine between the bladder and th...

Read more »

3

Pyelonephritis

Pyelonephritis is a sudden and severe kidney infection. This condition causes the kidneys to swell, can permanently damage the kidneys, and can even be life threatening. It is important to recognize the symptoms so yo...

Read more »

4

Costochondritis (Tietze's Syndrome)

Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage where the ribs attach to the breastbone. Pain worsens if you move, stretch, or breathe deeply. Women and those over 40 are most commonly diagnosed with this condition.

Read more »

5

Polycystic Kidney Disease

Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is an inherited kidney disorder that causes fluid-filled cysts to form in the kidneys. Abdominal and back pain, easy bruising, and fatigue are possible signs.

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6

Urologic Diseases

Urinary system disorders describes a wide variety of conditions related to the processing and carrying of urine out of the body.

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7

Acute Appendicitis

Acute appendicitis is a painful inflammation of your appendix, a small sac connected to your large intestine. It is an urgent condition that must be addressed immediately. If you have appendicitis, your appendi...

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8

Acute Unilateral Obstructive Uropathy

Obstructive uropathy is a blockage that prevents urine from leaving your kidneys. When this condition develops suddenly and only affects one kidney, it's called acute unilateral obstructive uropathy. The blockage occur...

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9

Bladder Infection

A bladder infection is a bacterial infection. It also may be called a urinary tract infection (UTI), which refers to infection anywhere in the urinary tract, including the bladder, kidneys, ureters, or urethra.

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10

Bladder Cancer

Bladder cancer occurs in the tissues of the bladder, which is the organ in the body that holds urine. Approximately 45,000 men and 17,000 women per year are diagnosed with the disease.The exact cause of bladder cance...

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11

Catheter Associated UTI (CAUTI)

A catheter-associated urinary tract infection (CAUTI) is one of the most common infections a person can contract in the hospital, according to the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (<...

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12

Hydronephrosis

Hydronephrosis is a condition that typically occurs when one kidney becomes swollen due to the failure of normal drainage of urine from the kidney to the bladder. This swelling most commonly affects only one kidney, bu...

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13

Renal Cell Cancer

Renal cell carcinoma, or RCC, is also called hypernephroma, adenocarcinoma of renal cells, or renal or kidney cancer. It is the most common kind of kidney cancer found in adults. The kidneys are organs in your body tha...

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14

Hypercalcemia

Hypercalcemia is a condition in which you have too much calcium in your blood. Calcium performs important functions, such as helping to keep your bones healthy. However, too much of it can cause problems. Hypercalcemi...

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15

Hodgkin's Disease

Hodgkin's disease is a type of lymphoma. Lymphoma is a blood cancer that starts in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system helps the immune system get rid of waste and fight infections. There are two main types o...

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16

Shingles

Shingles is an infection caused by the virus varicella-zoster, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Even after chickenpox is treated, the virus may live on in your nerve tissues for years before reactivatin...

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17

Addisonian Crisis (Acute Adrenal Crisis)

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

When we're stressed out, our adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps our bodies respond effectively to stress. It also plays a role in bone health, immune response, and the metabolism of food...

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18

Transitional Cell Cancer (Malignant Neoplasm of Ureter)

The tube that connects the kidneys to the bladder is known as the ureter . Most healthy people have two kidneys and, therefor, two ureters. The top of each ureter is found in the middle of the kidney in an area known a...

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19

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) is a lymphatic system cancer. Tumors develop from lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. NHL is more common than Hodgkin's lymphoma. Many types of cancers can spread to the lymph nodes...

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20

Transfusion Reactions

If you have experienced severe blood loss, a blood transfusion can help restore strength and health. However, it is important that the blood is accurately matched to your blood type. If the blood type is not a match...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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