Which physical findings are characteristic of nephrolithiasis?

Updated: Sep 16, 2021
  • Author: Chirag N Dave, MD; Chief Editor: Bradley Fields Schwartz, DO, FACS  more...
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The classic presentation for a patient with acute renal colic is the sudden onset of severe pain originating in the flank and radiating inferiorly and anteriorly. The pain is usually, but not always, associated with microscopic hematuria, nausea, and vomiting. Dramatic costovertebral angle tenderness is common; this pain can move to the upper or lower abdominal quadrant as a ureteral stone migrates distally. However, the rest of the examination findings are often unremarkable.

Abdominal examination usually is unremarkable. Bowel sounds may be hypoactive, a reflection of mild ileus, which is not uncommon in patients with severe, acute pain. Peritoneal signs are usually absent—an important consideration in distinguishing renal colic from other sources of flank or abdominal pain. Testicles may be painful but should not be very tender and should appear normal.

Unlike patients with an acute abdomen, who usually try to lie absolutely still, patients with renal colic tend to move constantly, seeking a more comfortable position. (However, patients with pyonephrosis also tend to remain motionless.) The classic patient with renal colic is writhing in pain, pacing about, and unable to lie still, in contrast to a patient with peritoneal irritation, who remains motionless to minimize discomfort.

Findings should correlate with the reports of pain, so that complicating factors (eg, urinary extravasation, abscess formation) can be detected. Beyond this, the specific location of tenderness does not always correlate with the exact location of the stone, although the calculus is often in the general area of maximum discomfort.

Approximately 85% of all patients with renal colic demonstrate at least microscopic hematuria, which means that 15% of all patients with kidney stones do not have hematuria. Lack of hematuria alone does not exclude the diagnosis of acute renal colic. Tachycardia and hypertension are relatively common in these cases, even in patients with no prior personal history of abnormal cardiac or blood pressure problems.

Fever is not part of the presentation of uncomplicated nephrolithiasis. The presence of pyuria, fever, leukocytosis, or bacteriuria suggests the possibility of a urinary infection and the potential for an infected obstructed renal unit or pyonephrosis. Such a condition is potentially life threatening and should be treated as a surgical emergency.

In patients older than 60 years presenting with severe abdominal pain and with no prior history of renal stones, look carefully for physical signs of abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) (see Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm).

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