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Reflux nephropathy

  • Definition
    • Reflux nephropathy is a condition in which the kidneys are damaged by the backward flow of urine into the kidney.

  • Alternative Names
    • Chronic atrophic pyelonephritis; Vesicoureteric reflux; Nephropathy - reflux; Ureteral reflux

  • Causes
    • Urine flows from each kidney through tubes called ureters and into the bladder. When the bladder is full, it squeezes and sends the urine out through the urethra. No urine should flow back into the ureter when the bladder is squeezing. Each ureter has a one-way valve where it enters the bladder that prevents urine from flowing back up the ureter.

      But in some people, urine flows back up to the kidney. This is called vesicoureteral reflux.

      Over time, the kidneys may be damaged or scarred by this reflux. This is called reflux nephropathy.

      Reflux can occur in people whose ureters do not attach properly to the bladder or whose valves do not work well. Children may be born with this problem or may have other birth defects of the urinary system that cause reflux nephropathy.

      Reflux nephropathy can occur with other conditions that lead to a blockage of urine flow, including:

      Reflux nephropathy can also occur from swelling of the ureters after a kidney transplant or from injury to the ureter.

      Risk factors for reflux nephropathy include:

      • Abnormalities of the urinary tract
      • Personal or family history of vesicoureteral reflux
      • Repeat urinary tract infections
  • Symptoms
  • Exams and Tests
  • Treatment
    • Vesicoureteral reflux is separated into 5 different grades. Simple or mild reflux often falls into grade I or II. The severity of the reflux and amount of damage to the kidney help determine treatment.

      Simple, uncomplicated vesicoureteral reflux (called primary reflux) can be treated with:

      • Antibiotics taken every day to prevent urinary tract infections
      • Careful monitoring of kidney function
      • Repeated urine cultures
      • Yearly ultrasound of the kidneys

      Controlling blood pressure is the most important way to slow kidney damage. The health care provider may prescribe medicines to control high blood pressure. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) are often used.

      Surgery is usually only used in children who have not responded to medical therapy.

      More severe vesicoureteral reflux may need surgery, especially in children who do not respond to medical therapy. Surgery to place the ureter back into the bladder (ureteral reimplantation) can stop reflux nephropathy in some cases.

      More severe reflux may need reconstructive surgery. This type of surgery may reduce the number and severity of urinary tract infections.

      If needed, people will be treated for chronic kidney disease.

  • Outlook (Prognosis)
    • Outcome varies, depending on the severity of the reflux. Some people with reflux nephropathy will not lose kidney function over time, even though their kidneys are damaged. However, kidney damage may be permanent. If only one kidney is involved, the other kidney should keep working normally.

      Reflux nephropathy may cause kidney failure in children and adults.

  • Possible Complications
    • Complications that may result from this condition or its treatment include:

      • Blockage of the ureter after surgery
      • Chronic kidney disease
      • Chronic or repeat urinary tract infections
      • Chronic kidney failure if both kidneys are involved (can progress to end-stage kidney disease)
      • Kidney infection
      • High blood pressure
      • Nephrotic syndrome
      • Persistent reflux
      • Scarring of the kidneys
  • When to Contact a Medical Professional
    • Call your provider if you:

      • Have symptoms of reflux nephropathy
      • Have other new symptoms
      • Are producing less urine than normal
  • Prevention
    • Quickly treating conditions that cause reflux of urine into the kidney may prevent reflux nephropathy.

  • References
    • Bakkaloglu SA, Schaefer F. Diseases of the kidney and urinary tract in children. In: Taal MW, Chertow GM, Marsden PA, Skorecki K, Yu A, Brenner BM, eds. Brenner and Rector's The Kidney. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 75.

      Mathews R, Mattoo TK. Primary vesicoureteral reflux and reflux nephropathy. In: Johnson RJ, Feehally J, Floege J, eds. Comprehensive Clinical Nephrology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 63.