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 an inflammation of the kidney and upper urinary tract. Symptoms include flushed skin, back pain, fever, and nausea.

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.

Read more »

6

Urologic Diseases

The term "urologic diseases" describes a wide variety of conditions, all related to the processing and carrying of urine out of the body. They can affect men, women, and children of all ages. These diseases affect ver...

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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 blockag...

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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 that holds urine. Fatigue, weight loss, painful or frequent urination, and abdominal or back pain are symptoms.

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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.

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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 is the most common kind of kidney cancer found in adults. Often aggressive, it occurs when cancer cells grow uncontrollably in the lining of the tubules of the kidney, causing many possible symptoms.

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14

Hypercalcemia

Hypercalcemia is a condition in which you have too much calcium in your blood. Serious cases could cause symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, and weakness.

Read more »

15

Hodgkin's Disease

Hodgkin's disease is a type of lymphoma, a blood cancer that starts in the lymphatic system. It can occur at any age, but is most prevalent between the ages of 15 and 40 and after the age of 55.

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16

Shingles

Shingles is an infection caused by the varicella-voster virus, which also causes chickenpox. Following pain and burning,fluid-filled blisters that break easily are common symptoms.

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17

Addisonian Crisis (Acute Adrenal Crisis)

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

People with Addison's disease don't make enough cortisol or aldosterone. Addisonian crisis is a potentially life-threatening condition indicated by nausea, abdominal pain, fever, and chills.

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18

Transitional Cell Cancer (Malignant Neoplasm of Ureter)

Urine collects in the renal pelvis and is drained by the ureter into the bladder. When cancer develops in the renal pelvis or ureter, it begins in transitional cells, which line these organs.

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19

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a lymphatic system cancer. Symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes, chest pain, fatigue, and fever.

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20

Transfusion Reactions

A transfusion reaction is a rare condition that occurs when a person receives a transfusion with blood that is not matched to their blood type. This may cause symptoms such as back pain, fever, fainting, or dizziness.

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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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