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
- conditions in the chest where pain is referred to the flank
- 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:
- blood in the urine
You should call your doctor right away if you experience the following symptoms along with your flank pain:
- 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
- fast pulse
- dry, sticky mouth
- 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.