This article is excerpted from Prevention, originally written by on September 22, 2020.

Solving the mystery of back pain can sometimes be a tricky task—especially if there isn’t an obvious injury to explain it. There are all sorts of nerves, joints, ligaments, and muscles that can get irritated and create problems back there; and believe it or not, certain organs can also play a part in what you might assume to be your average back soreness. For example, your kidneys.

These bean-shaped organs sit on either side of your spine (just below the ribcage) and spend their time filtering your blood of waste and extra water to make urine. When they get blocked or inflamed, you may experience some bothersome backaches. And these are the sort of agonies that need your attention stat.

“The middle of the kidney itself doesn’t have any nerves,” says Sabitha Rajan, M.D., MSc, a hospice and palliative medicine specialist. “So, whenever there’s pain in that area, it means something is causing them to stretch, hit nerves and it’s usually something pretty serious.”

When left untreated, inflamed kidneys can lead to kidney damage, high blood pressure, and in rare cases, organ failure. That’s why it’s important to know when your pain is a muscle twinge that just needs rest and ibuprofen, and a kidney issue that needs your doctor’s attention ASAP.

How can you tell the difference?

You want to look at two factors: the location of the pain and the type of sensations you’re experiencing.


Pain that is related to a pulled muscle, ligament strain, or disc damage, can be anywhere up and down your back, but it tends to be around the lower spine. Reason being: This area bears most of our weight as we go about our daily activities, rendering it more vulnerable to injury, tightness, and muscle fatigue. If there’s a nerve issue, the pain may also radiate down to your butt or to one of your legs or feet, as well.

Kidney pain, on the other hand, manifests around the middle of your back and to either side of the spine. This is called the flank area. “If you reach around and put your hand naturally where your waist is, it’s right about there,” says Dr. Rajan.

Type of pain

Back pain can range from a sharp burning sensation to a dull ache. You may also experience numbness or tingling in your legs. The key thing to notice about back pain, though, is that it often flares up or lessens depending on how you move, according to Cheyenne Santiago, M.S.N., R.N.

For example, you may find it super agonizing to bend over and grab your bag when standing is just fine. Or maybe you observe that sitting for long hours is making your back even crankier when gentle exercise makes you feel a bit better. These are signs that it is probably not a kidney issue. Also: if you think you injured a muscle, “you may actually be able to push right on the muscle that’s causing you the pain,” says Santiago.

Kidney pain can’t always be discovered through touch — especially, if you’re trying to perform the physical exam on your own. Instead you’ll want to take mental notes on the consistency of your aches. Like back pain, kidney pain can vary from mild to severe, but “kidney pain is pretty consistent and doesn’t change regardless of [the body’s] positioning,” says Santiago.

Kidney pain is also often accompanied by other symptoms, including:

  • Bloody, dark, or cloudy urine
  • Funkier smelling urine than usual
  • Pain when urinating
  • Feeling like you have to pee all of the time
  • Finding gravel-like stones in your urine
  • Having a fever or chills
  • Feeling nauseous

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you’ll want to have your primary care physician examine your kidney function.

If you’re not experiencing these symptoms, it’s likely back pain and most often occurs when the back is overworked, strained, or frequently subjected to poor posture. It usually gets better on its own. Avoid aggravating movements and give heat, ice, or anti-inflammatories a try. If it doesn’t clear up within six to 12 weeks, see your primary care doctor who can assist you in finding better treatment. If the primary care physician has exhausted treatment measures, the Bonati Spine Procedures can help.

Contact Bonati For Specialized Back Pain Help

Allow our surgeons to provide a complimentary review your case to determine if you are a candidate for our exclusive and patented procedures. Simply call 844-663-0310 or complete our contact form here and a Bonati patient advocate will be happy to reach out to you directly to discuss.

Read the full Prevention article here: