How is pain characterized in nephrolithiasis?

Updated: Jun 21, 2018
  • Author: Chirag N Dave, MD; Chief Editor: Bradley Fields Schwartz, DO, FACS  more...
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Answer

Most calculi originate within the kidney and proceed distally, creating various degrees of urinary obstruction as they become lodged in narrow areas, including the ureteropelvic junction, pelvic brim, and ureterovesical junction. Location and quality of pain are related to position of the stone within the urinary tract. Severity of pain is related to the degree of obstruction, presence of ureteral spasm, and presence of any associated infection.

Stones obstructing the ureteropelvic junction may present with mild-to-severe deep flank pain without radiation to the groin, due to distention of the renal capsule. Stones impacted within the ureter cause abrupt, severe, colicky pain in the flank and ipsilateral lower abdomen with radiation to the testicles or the vulvar area. Intense nausea, with or without vomiting, usually is present.

Pain from upper ureteral stones tends to radiate to the flank and lumbar areas. On the right side, this can be confused with cholecystitis or cholelithiasis; on the left, the differential diagnoses include acute pancreatitis, peptic ulcer disease, and gastritis.

Midureteral calculi cause pain that radiates anteriorly and caudally. This midureteral pain in particular can easily mimic appendicitis on the right or acute diverticulitis on the left.

Distal ureteral stones cause pain that tends to radiate into the groin or testicle in the male or labia majora in the female because the pain is referred from the ilioinguinal or genitofemoral nerves.

Stones lodged at the ureterovesical junction also may cause irritative voiding symptoms, such as urinary frequency and dysuria. If a stone is lodged in the intramural ureter, symptoms may appear similar to cystitis or urethritis. These symptoms include suprapubic pain, urinary frequency, urgency, dysuria, stranguria, pain at the tip of the penis, and sometimes various bowel symptoms, such as diarrhea and tenesmus. These symptoms can be confused with pelvic inflammatory disease, ovarian cyst rupture, or torsion and menstrual pain in women.

Calculi that have entered the bladder are usually asymptomatic and are passed relatively easily during urination. Rarely, a patient reports positional urinary retention (obstruction precipitated by standing, relieved by recumbency), which is due to the ball-valve effect of a large stone located at the bladder outlet.


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