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Flank Pain

Flank Pain

Alternate Names

  • flank discomfort
  • Kidneys and adrenal glands

Definition

The flanks are the sides of the abdomen, located between the ribs and the pelvis, or hipbone. Flank pain refers to any pain or discomfort in this area.

What is going on in the body?

Flank pain usually only occurs on one side, and may be mild or severe. There are many possible causes, ranging from unimportant to serious.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

There are many possible causes of flank pain. Common causes include:
  • injury
  • kidney stones
  • pyelonephritis, a kidney infection
  • bladder infection
  • irritable bowel syndrome, a poorly understood condition which causes abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements
  • gallbladder pain due to gallstones or other gallbladder disease
  • inflammation in the bowels, such as that caused by peptic ulcers or appendicitis
  • hepatitis
  • pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas
  • an enlarged or damaged spleen
  • pneumonia
  • a tumor or cancer inside the abdomen, such as colon cancer
Other causes are also possible. Sometimes a cause cannot be found.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Avoidance of alcohol abuse could prevent many cases of flank pain from hepatitis or pancreatitis. Vaccines are available to prevent hepatitis A and B. Drinking plenty of fluids every day can sometimes prevent kidney stones. Many of the causes of flank pain cannot be prevented.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

The diagnosis of flank pain begins with a complete medical history and physical exam. The healthcare professional may then order tests, such as:
  • a urinalysis
  • an abdominal x-ray
  • an intravenous pyelogram or IVP
  • blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) and blood chemistry tests
  • ultrasound tests
  • CT scans

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Irritable bowel syndrome may make a person uncomfortable and even depressed, but poses no serious long-term health risks. A small kidney stone may pass by itself and have no long-term effects. A large kidney stone may require surgery or other procedure to remove. Appendicitis is cured by surgery if performed in time. Cancer may lead to death if treatments are not successful.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Flank pain is not contagious and usually poses no risk to others. If the cause is an infection, the infection may be contagious.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Pain medication can be given as needed for relief of the flank pain. Stronger medications for pain, such as morphine, may be needed in some cases. Those with a kidney stone may be able to pass the stone into their urine. If the stone passes, no other treatment is needed. If the stone doesn't pass, surgery may be needed to remove it.
Those with gallbladder disease or appendicitis usually need surgery.
Someone with irritable bowel syndrome may be given medication to help the bowel relax or prevent it from having spasms. Those with a urinary tract infection are usually given antibiotics. Those with a tumor or cancer may need surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Side effects depend on the treatments used. For instance, antibiotics can cause allergic reactions and stomach upset. Surgery can be complicated by bleeding, infection, or an allergic reaction to the anesthetic.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Someone who passes a kidney stone or has it removed may not need any further treatment. A person with irritable bowel syndrome may need long-term treatment for pain flare-ups. An individual with cancer may need long-term treatment for the cancer and may die if treatments are not successful.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Monitoring will depend on the cause of the flank pain. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.

Sources

Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.

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