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Can Kidney Cancer Cause Pain?

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

Can Kidney Cancer Cause Pain?

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 in cases where the cancer is more advanced, and the cancer has spread beyond the kidneys into nearby tissues or other areas of the body. These symptoms sometimes include pain and discomfort.

Here, we look at how kidney cancer can cause pain, and the treatments that a healthcare team may recommend to relieve and manage pain.

Identifying the cause
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. In the case of RCC, local impairments can refer to tumors that are interfering with the functioning of the kidney, which can interfere with the body’s ability to expel urine (which can be uncomfortable and painful). Local impairments can also refer to tumors that have invaded nearby tissues or organs (such as the bowel, liver, nearby nerves, or the abdominal wall). 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. Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from the initial tumor to other sites in the body, such as the bones or the brain. These tumors can cause a variety of symptoms, including pain.
  • Surgical scarring. Surgery is a common treatment approach for early-stage kidney cancer and is also used to treat advanced kidney cancer (for example, surgery may be used to treat local impairments in some cases). Chronic pain can be a side effect of surgical scarring.
  • 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 abdominal pain and joint pain (though side effects will vary depending on the medications being used).

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, which can worsen symptoms, these may need to be used in conjunction with medications that ease or prevent constipation.
  • Surgery. In cases of local impairments, surgery to remove the kidney and/or excise tumors from nearby structures and tissues may be used with the intention of relieving pain. Surgery may also be used to remove metastatic tumors that are causing pain.
  • Radiation. Radiation therapy 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 supplies 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.

Medically reviewed in April 2021.

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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