Understanding Your Side Pain Symptoms | Common Causes Explained

Side pain can be concerning because it could implicate issues with the kidneys or ovaries for women who have flank pain. To provide further understanding, read below for more information on causes and how to treat pain in the side of the body.

This symptom can also be referred to as: flank pain

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Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 5 Possible Side Pain Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. Related Articles
  9. References

Side Pain Symptoms

It's likely you've experienced a stitch — a sharp, strange pain — in your side before. However, these pains usually only last a few seconds. Longer-lasting side pain, also known as flank pain, can be concerning. For regular stomach upset or constipation, you're probably used to belly pain up-front. Specifically, the "flank" refers to the meaty area on the side of the body between the ribs and the hip, though you may also feel pain spreading around toward your back, as well.

Certain people are more prone to develop side pain symptoms from a variety of conditions. Flank pain is often associated with diseases of the kidney, but it is not the only cause of side pain [1,2].

Common accompanying symptoms of side pain

If you're experiencing side pain, it's likely to also experience:

Side Pain Causes

The side of your abdomen is most commonly associated with the kidneys. The kidneys are lima bean-shaped organs in the back of your upper abdomen and are about the size of your fist. The side of your body has other organs nearby, which may cause "referred pain" to your flank. This area is covered by layers of muscle and skin, which can also become irritated to cause such pain.

Musculoskeletal and trauma causes

The following causes are related to the musculoskeletal system and various trauma.

  • Rib fracture: A recent fall or accident may have caused a broken a rib around your flank [3].
  • Intraabdominal injury: Taking direct blows to the abdomen or flank can lead to damage of internal organs, such as the kidney or spleen.
  • Hematoma: Less severe trauma can lead to bleeding [4,5]. This can lead to discomfort and discoloration around the area.
  • Muscle strain: Repetitive lifting while using your flank or back muscles can lead to soreness that may last a few days as the muscle repairs itself. Overuse of the muscle can lead to a strain, which may occur more suddenly and be more painful.

Kidney and urinary causes

Causes of side pain related to the kidneys and renal system may include the following.

  • Kidney stones: Kidney stones can block the urine leaving the kidney and cause painful urination.
  • Mass lesions of the kidney: Cysts or cancers of the kidney or surrounding organs can cause compression and slow onset of pain.
  • Blockage of blood flow: In older individuals, blood flow to the kidney may be blocked causing pain.
  • Other inflammatory conditions of the kidney

Infectious causes

Infectious causes of side pain may include the following.

  • Infection of the kidney: Each kidney is attached to the bladder via a tube called the ureter. It is possible to develop an infection in the kidney similar to how one can get a "UTI," or urinary tract infection [6].
  • Pneumonia or lung infection: The lungs extend further south than you might think, and pneumonia can cause pain that mimics that of flank pain (alongside cough and fever) [7].
  • Skin infection: Localized skin infection or shingles may cause burning and redness in the area.

Other causes

Other causes of side pain may include:

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm
  • Inflammation or infection of the colon
  • Inflammation or infection of the liver
  • Bowel obstruction and constipation

5 Possible Side Pain Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced side pain. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Kidney infection (pyelonephritis)

A kidney infection, or pyelonephritis, is actually a type of urinary tract infection (UTI) that begins in the urethra or bladder and spreads to the kidneys.

The infection is caused by bacteria that either travel into the urethra or spread from an infection elsewhere in the body.

Women, especially pregnant women, are most susceptible. Anyone who has had a urinary tract blockage, or uses a catheter, or has a weakened immune system is also at risk for a kidney infection.

Symptoms include fever; chills; back and abdominal pain; and frequent, painful urination. If there is also nausea and vomiting and discolored, foul-smelling urine, take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Left untreated, pyelonephritis can cause permanent damage to the kidneys. Bacteria can also enter the bloodstream and cause a life-threatening infection elsewhere in the body.

Diagnosis is made through urine test, blood test, and sometimes imaging such as ultrasound, CT scan, or x-ray.

Treatment includes antibiotics and sometimes hospitalization.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, pelvis pain, back pain, vomiting

Symptoms that never occur with kidney infection (pyelonephritis): mid back pain from an injury

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Kidney stone

A kidney stone is a stone made up of various possible materials that forms in the kidneys. Factors that increase the risk of forming kidney stones include high levels of calcium, uric acid, and oxalate in the urine, low levels of citrate in the urine, abnormal urine pH, low urine volume, certain urin...

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Side Pain Symptom Checker

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Ovarian torsion

Ovarian torsion, also called adnexal torsion or tubo-ovarian torsion, is the twisting of the "stem," or supporting fleshy pedicle, of the ovary.

This condition can occur when a mass forms on the surface of the ovary and pulls it over. This is most often a complication of cystic ovaries.

It is most common in women under thirty or past menopause. It can occur during pregnancy.

Symptoms include severe, one-sided, lower abdominal pain with nausea and vomiting.

Diagnosis is made by ultrasound. The ovary will appear enlarged due to the torsion cutting off the circulation. There will be free pelvic fluid and a twisted pedicle.

Ovarian torsion is a medical emergency. The ovary can die due to loss of circulation, causing infection, abscess, or peritonitis. Surgery must be done to prevent tissue death and subsequent complications. In the majority of cases the affected ovary must be removed, which also removes the cyst or mass that caused the torsion.

Proper treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can help prevent at least one cause of ovarian torsion.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea or vomiting, nausea, moderate abdominal pain, loss of appetite

Symptoms that never occur with ovarian torsion: diarrhea, pain below the ribs, mild abdominal pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Normal abdominal pain

The complaint of nonspecific abdominal pain and discomfort, with no apparent cause, is one of the most common in medicine. It is a primary reason for patients to visit a medical provider or the emergency room.

The cause of abdominal pain can be difficult to find, because it can come from many different sources: the digestive tract, the urinary tract, the pancreas, the gall bladder, or the gynecologic organs.

The pain may simply be caused by overly sensitive nerves in the gut. This hypersensitivity can occur after repeated abdominal injury and/or it may have an emotional cause due to fear of the pain itself.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, patient history, and simply ruling out any other condition. CT scan is often requested, but can rarely find a specific cause. The benefits must be weighed against the risks of radiation.

Treatment first involves making any needed lifestyle improvements regarding diet, exercise, work, and sleep, in order to reduce stress. In some cases, counseling, hypnosis, mild pain relievers, and antidepressants are helpful.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), vaginal discharge, fever, nausea

Symptoms that always occur with normal abdominal pain: abdominal pain (stomach ache)

Symptoms that never occur with normal abdominal pain: fever, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, severe abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss, vaginal discharge

Urgency: Self-treatment

Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, which creates and releases insulin and glucagon to keep the sugar levels in your blood stable. It also creates the enzymes that digest your food in the small intestine. When these enzymes accidentally get activated in the pancreas, they digest the pancreas itself, causing pain and inflammation.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: constant abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, being severely ill, severe abdominal pain, fever

Symptoms that always occur with acute pancreatitis: constant abdominal pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Side Pain Treatments and Relief

You should consult a physician for persistent side pain. However, if you think it is likely related to a minor injury or muscle strain, at-home side pain treatments can be tried first.

At-home treatments

The following treatments for side pain can be tried at home.

  • Rest: Rest can help muscle soreness associated with overuse or minor trauma.
  • Pain medication: Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help reduce pain and discomfort. Avoid excessive use of ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and other NSAIDs that can worsen kidney function.
  • Ice or heat: A heat pack, ice-pack or cool washcloth can help with the discomfort associated with minor trauma or overuse injury.
  • Stretching: Performing side bends and other stretches of the side muscles can be beneficial as you recover.

When to see a doctor

If at-home treatments aren't enough, you and your doctor can discuss the following and decide what is best.

  • Urine and blood chemistry testing: A doctor may order testing of your urine and blood to evaluate the cause of your pain and your kidney function.
  • Imaging: A doctor may order ultrasounds or CT scans to better evaluate your condition.
  • IV fluids: These can help with dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
  • Antibiotics: If your pain is caused by an infection, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat you. This may require a stay in the hospital for intravenous medications.
  • Surgery: Certain conditions or large kidney stones require surgery for effective management.

When it is an emergency

You should seek help without delay if you have:

  • Serious trauma
  • Fever
  • Decrease in urine output or change in urine coloration
  • Pain with urination
  • A history of kidney disease or immunocompromised condition

Prevention

Not all causes of flank or side pain can be prevented. However, drinking plenty of water is one of the best things you can do for both your kidneys and your overall health. It's also important to use proper form when exercising or lifting. Consult a professional if necessary.

FAQs About Side Pain

Here are some frequently asked questions about side pain.

Why do I have pain in the lower right side of my back?

Pain in the lower right portion of the back may be due to muscular strain particularly involving straightening the spine, lifting the leg, or sitting with poor posture (e.g. hunching over a desk while favoring one leg). It may also be a sign of a severe infection of the kidneys, though usually other symptoms like fatigue, aches, and intermittent chills and high fevers as well as cloudy urine are present.

What are the symptoms of trapped gas?

Trapped gas may cause symptoms of discomfort, bloating, and pain with compression of the abdomen from either clothing or posture. The most telltale sign of symptoms of trapped gas is when relief occurs with belching or flatulence.

What does pain in the spleen feel like?

The spleen is on the left side of the body just below the ribcage toward the back. Pain in on the left side, near the back, at the base of the lungs, or near the front of the body is characteristic of spleen pain. It may be sharp or it may be a crampy sensation or a dull ache. Many processes can occur in the spleen such as bleeding, infection or damage from trauma, and they may cause different sensations.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Side Pain

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Have you noticed any changes in the color of your urine recently?
  • Do you feel pain when you urinate?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • How would you explain the cause of the flank pain?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your side pain. These questions are also covered.

Side Pain Quiz

Side Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced side pain have also experienced:

  • 4% Lower Back Pain
  • 4% Nausea
  • 4% Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache)

People who have experienced side pain were most often matched with:

  • 33% Kidney Infection (Pyelonephritis)
  • 33% Kidney Stone
  • 33% Ovarian Torsion

People who have experienced side pain had symptoms persist for:

  • 38% Less than a day
  • 30% Less than a week
  • 16% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Side Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your side pain

References

  1. Flank Pain. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated Jan. 7, 2019. MedlinePlus Link
  2. 3 Early Warning Signs of Kidney Disease. National Kidney Foundation. NCF Link
  3. Fractured Rib. University of Michigan: Michigan Medicine. Reviewed Sept. 20, 2018. U of M Health Link
  4. Shikhman A, Bhimji SS. Abdominal Hematoma. [Updated 2018 Nov 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2018 Jan-. NCBI Link
  5. Dutta S, Sanjay P, Jones ML. Diagnosis and treatment of giant lateral abdominal wall haematoma after blunt trauma: a case report. Cases J. 2009;2:9358. Published 2009 Dec 19. doi:10.1186/1757-1626-2-9358. NCBI Link
  6. Antibiotic Prescribing and Use in Doctor's Offices. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Link
  7. Birkin C, Biyani CS, Browning AJ. Legionella pneumonia presenting with bilateral flank pain, hyponatraemia and acute renal failure. Can Urol Assoc J. 2011;5(6):E96-E100. NCBI Link