What is the role of surgery in the treatment of hydronephrosis and hydroureter?

Updated: Dec 16, 2020
  • Author: Dennis G Lusaya, MD; Chief Editor: Bradley Fields Schwartz, DO, FACS  more...
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The specific treatment of a patient with hydronephrosis and hydroureter depends, of course, on the etiology of the process. Several factors help determine the urgency with which treatment should be initiated. In general, any signs of infection within the obstructed system warrant urgent intervention because infection with hydronephrosis may progress rapidly to sepsis. A mildly elevated white blood cell count is often observed in patients with stones but does not necessarily mandate immediate action in the absence of other signs or symptoms of systemic infection. However, even a low-grade fever in a diabetic or immunosuppressed patient (ie, on steroid therapy) requires immediate treatment.

The potential for loss of renal function also adds to the urgency (eg, hydronephrosis or hydroureter bilaterally or in a solitary kidney). Finally, patient symptoms help determine the urgency with which treatment is initiated. For example, refractory pain in a patient with an obstructing ureteral calculus necessitates intervention, as does intractable nausea and vomiting.

Urethral catheterization is important to help rule out a lower tract cause for hydronephrosis and hydroureter. Difficulty in placing a Foley catheter may suggest urethral stricture or bladder neck contracture.

Urologists commonly use ureteral stent placement in cases of intrinsic and extrinsic causes of hydronephrosis. The procedure is usually performed in conjunction with cystoscopy and retrograde pyelography. Stents can bypass an obstruction and dilate the ureter for subsequent endoscopic treatment.

Urologists or interventional radiologists can place a percutaneous nephrostomy tube if ureteral stenting is not possible. Usually, ultrasonography is used first to locate the dilated collecting system. Using the Seldinger technique, a tube ranging from 8-12F can be placed. Nephrostomies are typically placed when a retrograde stent cannot be passed because of anatomic changes in the bladder or high-grade obstruction in the ureter. Because this procedure can be performed under local anesthesia, patients who are too hemodynamically unstable for general anesthesia may undergo percutaneous nephrostomy tube placement. In addition, nephrostomy tube placement may be performed with minimal use of radiation and may be useful in pregnant patients.

In a study of fluoroscopically guided percutaneous nephrostomy (PCN) placement in infants and young children (mean age 8.6 months; range, 1 day-75.5 mo), Hwang et al reported achieving complete decompression of hydronephrosis in 35 of 53 kidneys (66%) and incomplete decompression in 17 of 55 kidneys (32.1%). The authors concluded that PCN is a feasible and effective option for relieving urinary obstruction in these patients, and can serve as a bridging procedure to definitive corrective surgery. [40]

Advances in endoscopic and percutaneous instrumentation have decreased the role of open or laparoscopic surgery for hydronephrosis. Certain causes of hydronephrosis, mostly extrinsic, still require treatment with open surgery. Examples include retroperitoneal fibrosis, retroperitoneal tumors, and aortic aneurysms. Some stones that cannot be treated endoscopically or with extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy require open removal. Although endoscopic management does play a role in low-grade low-stage ureteral tumors, these lesions also usually require open or laparoscopic surgical management.

Urine should be collected from the kidney when obstruction is relieved to allow identification and targeted treatment of any infection that may be present.

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