Injury to the kidney and ureter is damage to the organs of the upper urinary tract.
The kidneys are located in the flank at either side of the spine. The flank is the back of the upper abdomen. They are protected by the spine, lower rib cage, and strong muscles of the back. This location protects the kidneys from many outside forces. The kidneys are also surrounded by a layer of fat. The fat helps to cushion them.
The kidneys have a large blood supply. Any injury to them, can lead to severe bleeding. The many layers of padding help prevent kidney injury.
Kidneys may be injured by damage to the blood vessels that supply or drain them, including:
Kidney injuries may also be caused by:
- Angiomyolipoma, a noncancerous tumor, if the tumor is very large
- Autoimmune disorders
- Bladder outlet obstruction
- Cancer of the kidney, pelvic organs (ovaries or uterus in women), or colon
- Buildup of body waste products such as uric acid (which can occur with gout or treatment of bone marrow, lymph node, or other disorders)
- Exposure to toxic substances such as lead, cleaning products, solvents, fuels, certain antibiotics, or long-term use of high-dose pain medicines (analgesic nephropathy)
- High blood pressure and other medical conditions that affect the kidneys
- Inflammation caused by immune responses to medicines, infection, or other disorders
- Medical procedures such as kidney biopsy, or nephrostomy tube placement
- Ureteropelvic junction obstruction
- Ureteral obstruction
- Kidney stones
The ureters are the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder. Ureteral injuries may be caused by:
Emergency symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Severe flank pain and back pain
- Blood in the urine
- Drowsiness, decreased alertness, including coma
- Decreased urine output or inability to urinate
- Increased heart rate
- Nausea, vomiting
- Skin that is pale or cool to touch
Long-term (chronic) symptoms may include:
- High blood pressure
- Kidney failure
If only one kidney is affected and the other kidney is healthy, you may not have any symptoms.
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will examine you. Let them know about any recent illness or if you have come into contact with toxic substances.
The exam may show:
- Excess bleeding (hemorrhage)
- Extreme tenderness over the kidney
- Shock, including rapid heart rate or falling blood pressure
- Signs of kidney failure
Tests that may be done include:
- Abdominal CT scan
- Abdominal MRI
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Angiography of the kidney artery or vein
- Blood electrolytes
- Blood tests to look for toxic substances
- Complete blood count (CBC)
- Intravenous pyelogram (IVP)
- Kidney function tests
- Retrograde pyelogram
- Kidney x-ray
- Renal scan
- Urodynamic study
- Voiding cystourethrogram
The goals are to treat emergency symptoms and prevent or treat complications. You may need to stay in a hospital.
Treatments for a kidney injury may include:
- Bed rest for 1 to 2 weeks or until bleeding is reduced
- Close observation and treatment for symptoms of kidney failure
- Diet changes
- Medicines to treat damage caused by toxic substances or illnesses (for example, chelation therapy for lead poisoning or allopurinol to lower uric acid in the blood due to gout)
- Pain medicines
- Eliminating medicines or exposure to substances that may have injured the kidney
- Drugs such as corticosteroids or immunosuppressants if the injury was caused by inflammation
- Treatment of acute kidney failure
Sometimes, surgery is needed. This may include:
- Repairing a "fractured" or torn kidney, torn blood vessels, torn ureter, or similar injury
- Removing the entire kidney (nephrectomy), draining the space around the kidney, or stopping the bleeding via arterial catheterization (angioembolization)
- Placing a stent
- Removing blockage or relieving obstruction
How well you do depends on the cause and severity of the injury.
Sometimes, the kidney starts working properly again. Sometimes, kidney failure occurs.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if you have symptoms of an injury to the kidney or ureter. Call the provider if you have a history of:
- Exposure to toxic substances
- Physical injury
Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you have decreased urine output after a kidney injury. This may be a symptom of kidney failure.
You can help prevent injury to the kidneys and ureter by taking these steps:
- Be aware of substances that can cause lead poisoning. These include old paints, vapors from working with lead-coated metals, and alcohol distilled in recycled car radiators.
- Take all your medicines properly, including ones you buy without a prescription (over-the-counter).
- Treating gout and other illnesses as instructed by your provider.
- Use safety equipment during work and play.
- Use cleaning products, solvents, and fuels as directed. Make sure the area is well-ventilated, because the fumes may also be toxic.
- Wear seat belts and drive safely.
Kidney damage; Toxic injury of the kidney; Kidney injury; Traumatic injury of the kidney; Fractured kidney; Inflammatory injury of the kidney; Bruised kidney; Ureteral injury; Pre-renal failure - injury; Post-renal failure - injury; Kidney obstruction - injury
Brandes SB, Eswara JR. Upper urinary tract trauma. In: Partin AW, Dmochowski RR, Kavoussi LR, Peters CA, eds. Campbell-Walsh-Wein Urology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 90.
Okusa MD, Portilla D. Pathophysiology of acute kidney injury. In: Yu ASL, Chertow GM, Luyckx VA, Marsden PA, Skorecki K, Taal MW, eds. Brenner and Rector's The Kidney. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 28.
Shewakramani SN. Genitourinary system. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 40.
Review Date 8/10/2020
Updated by: Kelly L. Stratton, MD, FACS, Associate Professor, Department of Urology, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.