It's well-established that consuming alcohol regularly or in excess has long-term effects on your health, especially the health of your liver and kidneys. Still, if you've ever woken up after drinking with pain in your back or side, it might surprise you to learn that your kidneys could be the source of your discomfort. The kidneys have several jobs, mainly filtering toxins (such as alcohol) from your blood. Here's what you should know about the connection between consuming alcohol and kidney pain.
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Your kidneys are two bean-shaped organs on either side of your backbone, just below your rib cage.
They are responsible for filtering waste from your blood and regulating levels of minerals and water in your body.
When you drink alcohol, your kidneys work harder than usual, trying to remove the alcohol from your blood. Consuming alcohol also suppresses a specific hormone (vasopressin) that regulates how often you urinate.¹ So, you lose more liquid while drinking alcohol than you’re taking in because your bladder is flushing it out of your system, which eventually leads to dehydration. Being dehydrated limits the healthy functioning of your cells, organs, and kidneys.² Health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend
Not drinking alcohol at all.¹
Limiting alcohol intake to two drinks a day (or less) if you are male.¹
Limiting alcohol intake to one drink a day (or less) if you are female.¹
Note: These harm reduction suggestions apply to days when you consume alcohol. However, they do not imply that drinking every day is safe. According to the National Kidney Foundation, individuals who drink are more likely to develop chronic kidney disease (CKD) and other serious health complications, such as liver disease and high blood pressure, than those who don't consume alcohol.²
While characteristics vary, pain attributable to kidney health issues may feel like³
Soreness under your rib cage or on either side of your spine
Sudden, sharp, or stabbing pain in your back, sides, or upper abdomen
Dull, aching pain in your back, sides, or upper abdomen
Pain that worsens at night
In many cases, kidney pain is accompanied by other symptoms, including
Pain when urinating
Blood in urine
Loss of appetite
Just as the symptoms and causes of kidney pain vary among individuals, complications from kidney pain will differ depending on the underlying causes. For example, if your kidney pain is caused by an infection, that infection can spread to your blood (sepsis). If your kidney pain results from untreated or unmanaged kidney disease, possible long-term complications include⁴
Dangerously high potassium levels
High blood pressure (hypertension)
High levels of phosphorous, which can lead to bone problems, such as osteoporosis
Swelling and fluid retention
Whether you experience it regularly, occasionally, or this is your first time noticing it, kidney pain after drinking alcohol should never be ignored. While it can sometimes be treated and managed at home, in some instances, it can be caused by a severe condition, such as an infection, that can lead to other health complications when there is no medical support. For this reason, it's best to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider immediately if you develop sudden or severe kidney pain after drinking, particularly if it's accompanied by other signs, such as
During your appointment, it's also worth talking with your healthcare provider about whether or not it's safe for you to consume alcohol in general. Along with the condition of your kidneys, other health factors could play a role in this decision, including any medications you're currently taking or your family medical history.
Kidney pain resulting from heavy or frequent drinking can occur for several reasons (sometimes in combination):³
Binge drinking can lead to waste building up in your blood faster than your kidneys can filter it out. Along with kidney pain, symptoms of acute kidney injury include difficulty urinating, fatigue, trouble breathing, swollen face or legs, chest pressure, nausea, and/or vomiting.
Alcohol increases the acidity of your urine, which can irritate the lining of your bladder and cause a UTI. UTI symptoms include discomfort when urinating, blood in urine, dark or foul-smelling urine, abdominal or back pain, frequent urination, and/or fever.
Hard deposits of minerals can build up in your kidneys over time. Kidney stones can range from very tiny (smaller than a grain of sand) to larger than a pearl. Since alcohol causes you to urinate more often than usual and dehydrates you, heavy drinking can increase your chances of developing a kidney stone and lead to kidney pain.
The presence of chronic kidney disease could also be the underlying cause of kidney pain after drinking. While treatable, if chronic kidney disease is undetected, it can lead to serious health issues, such as
Weakening of bones
Swelling in feet, arms, and legs from fluid retention
Central nervous system damage, causing cause seizures and trouble breathing
A compromised immune system potentially leads to more frequent infections
Swelling in feet, arms, and legs from fluid retention
Sexual problems, including low libido, erectile dysfunction, and reduced fertility
This type of urinary tract infection begins in your bladder or urethra and spreads to one or both kidneys. If you have a kidney infection, drinking alcohol will increase your discomfort.
In addition to kidney pain, symptoms of kidney failure include exhaustion, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, headache, difficulty concentrating, changes in urination, or swelling in the ankles and legs. These symptoms can be life-threatening. If you believe that you or someone you know is at risk of kidney failure and are experiencing these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
If you have a history of disordered drinking behavior, your liver may work less efficiently or be affected by liver disease. In this case, your kidneys may be receiving less blood flow and causing pain.
Treatment of kidney pain will depend on the exact cause. Therapeutic options might include medication, rehydration, or, in some cases, surgery.
Antibiotics are a standard treatment option if you're experiencing pain due to an infection, such as a urinary tract infection.
If you do not have underlying kidney disease or low kidney function, over-the-counter pain relief medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be appropriate and helpful for managing pain. Aspirin may be unsuitable. It’s important to get advice from your doctor before taking any NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) so they can assess how your kidneys are functioning and determine the cause of your pain.
Depending on the extent of dehydration, a healthcare professional may give you intravenous (IV) fluids as the most efficient means of helping you rehydrate.
If kidney pain is due to kidney stones, surgery may be required to remove them if they are too large to pass on their own.
Visiting a doctor is the best way to determine the cause of your kidney pain and find an appropriate treatment to alleviate your symptoms and protect the health of your kidneys.
It's essential to listen to your body’s signals if you experience kidney pain after drinking alcohol, Developing kidney pain after drinking could be a sign you're drinking too much or too often. Of course, the solution to this problem seems simple enough: quit drinking alcohol. Even if you haven’t developed disordered drinking habits, limiting the number of alcoholic drinks you consume or avoiding alcohol can help prevent kidney pain. However, alcohol is addictive, and drinking less, or not at all, can be challenging. If you are preoccupied with your drinking behavior or suspect that you are having kidney pain after drinking, start by discussing your concerns with your doctor. A licensed healthcare professional can help you safely detox from alcohol and avoid post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWs).⁵
If you notice kidney pain after binge drinking, specific care measures can help while you await a check-in with a healthcare provider.
Getting and staying hydrated Drinking plenty of water (at least eight 8 oz. glasses per day) helps eliminate bacteria that cause urinary tract infections and generally helps your body function better. If vomiting or nauseous, take it slow and sip water often. Avoid gulping large amounts quickly.
Taking an Epsom soak or warm bath Soaking in a tub full of warm water mixed with Epsom salt is an effective way to relax your muscles and reduce kidney discomfort.
Applying heat A heating pad in 20-minute intervals can help alleviate back or side pain related to kidney issues.
Avoiding irritants Stay away from dehydrating and potentially bladder irritating and dehydrating beverages, like coffee and alcohol.
Your kidneys constantly work to remove toxins from your blood and balance the amount of water in your body. They work overtime when you're drinking alcohol. Binge drinking, in particular, stresses your kidneys and can lead to problems that result in mild to severe kidney pain. Kidney pain can be caused by many factors, including dehydration, kidney stones, and urinary tract infections. If you believe you are having kidney pain after drinking alcohol, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. Seeking professional medical care sooner than later can help you get an accurate diagnosis of what is causing your kidney pain. They will assist you in introducing an individualized treatment plan that will relieve your symptoms and preserve the health of your kidneys.
Dietary guidelines for alcohol | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Alcohol and your kidneys | National Kidney Foundation
Kidney pain after drinking alcohol | Alcohol Rehab Help
Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) | Addiction Center
Watch out for your kidneys when you use medicines for pain | National Kidney Foundation