What to know about kidney cancer and pain

Learn the different ways kidney cancer can cause pain and how pain can be managed.

Man grabs back in pain.

Updated on April 2, 2024.

Kidney cancer is cancer that begins in the kidneys. The most common type is renal cell carcinoma (RCC).

In the early stages, kidney cancer typically does not cause any noticeable symptoms. Noticeable symptoms are more common when the cancer is more advanced and has spread beyond the kidneys into nearby tissues or other areas of the body. When this happens, symptoms can include pain and discomfort.

Read on to learn about how kidney cancer can cause pain, and the treatments that a healthcare team may recommend to treat pain.

Identifying the cause of pain

If you are experiencing pain or discomfort, it is important to discuss these symptoms with your healthcare provider. Kidney cancer can cause pain and discomfort for several reasons:

  • Local impairments. This can refer to tumors that are interfering with the functioning of the kidney and affecting the body’s ability to urinate, creaing discomfort and pain. Local impairments can also refer to tumors that have grown into nearby tissues or organs such as the instestines, liver, or nearby nerves. Pain, pressure or discomfort in the lower back or flank (between the ribs and the hips) can be a symptom of a local impairment.
  • Metastases. This is cancer that has spread from the initial tumor to other areas of the body, such as the bones or the brain. These tumors can cause a variety of symptoms, including pain.
  • Surgical scarring. Although surgery is a common treatment for kidney cancer, chronic pain can be a side effect caused by scarring that develops after surgery.
  • Medication side effects. Pain can also be a side effect of anti-cancer drugs. The preferred medications for kidney cancer are immunotherapy drugs, which help the immune system identify and destroy cancer cells throughout the body. Like other cancer therapies, immunotherapy drugs can cause side effects, including pain in the joints and abdomen.

It is also worth noting that pain is a different experience for everyone—even in circumstances where pain has a similar cause, one person may experience intense pain while another only experiences mild discomfort. Many different factors influence how a person experiences pain. This highlights the importance of telling your healthcare provider about any pain or discomfort that you are experiencing.

Addressing pain and discomfort

Depending on what’s causing the pain, your healthcare team may recommend a number of different procedures or strategies, such as:

  • Pain relief medications. This includes over-the counter medications or prescription medications. Because some pain-relief medications can cause constipation and worsen symptoms, these may need to be used in combination with medications that ease or prevent constipation.
  • Surgery. Removing the kidney and/or tumors from nearby structures and tissues can sometimes relieve pain. Surgery may also be used to remove metastatic tumors that have spread to other parts of the body and are causing pain.
  • Radiation. Radiation therapy, or high-dose xrays, may be used to shrink or destroy metastatic tumors, particularly tumors that are affecting the bones.
  • Arterial embolization. This is a procedure that closes off an artery that brings blood to the kidney, which causes the organ to shrink. This may be used to relieve pain or other symptoms.

The approach to managing pain will depend on the exact cause of the pain and the level of pain that you are experiencing. It will also depend on a number of factors about your overall health and medical history. Because each case of kidney cancer is different than the next, your healthcare providers will be your best source of information about your diagnosis, your symptoms, and your treatment options. For further questions about treating pain related to kidney cancer and how your insurance may help cover costs, speak with your healthcare providers.

Article sources open article sources

UCLA Health. "Types of Kidney Cancer."
UpToDate. "Patient education: Renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) (Beyond the Basics)"
Mayo Clinic. "Kidney Cancer."
European Association of Urology. "Management and Palliative Care."
Cancer.Net. "Kidney Cancer: Symptoms and Signs."
Urology Care Foundation. "What is Kidney Cancer?"
Cancer.Net. "Kidney Cancer: Follow-Up Care."
American Cancer Society. "Immunotherapy for Kidney Cancer."
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "Brain Imaging Confirms That People Feel Pain Differently." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 June 2003.
HSS. "The Emotional Impact of the Pain Experience."
CancerCare Connect Booklet Series. "Treatment Update: Kidney Cancer."
Canadian Cancer Society. "Kidney Cancer."

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