Reflux nephropathy is a condition in which the kidneys are damaged by the backward flow of urine into the kidney.
Chronic atrophic pyelonephritis; Vesicoureteric reflux; Nephropathy - reflux; Ureteral reflux
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:
Some people have no symptoms of reflux nephropathy. The problem may be found when kidney tests are done for other reasons.
If symptoms do occur, they might be similar to those of:
Reflux nephropathy is often found when a child is checked for repeated bladder infections. If vesicoureteral reflux is discovered, the child's siblings may also be checked, because reflux can run in families.
Blood pressure may be high, and there may be signs and symptoms of long-term (chronic) kidney disease.
Blood and urine tests will be done, and may include:
Imaging tests that may be done include:
Vesicoureteral reflux is separated into five 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:
Controlling blood pressure is the most important way to slow kidney damage. Your 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.
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.
Complications that may result from this condition or its treatment include:
Contact your provider if you:
Quickly treating conditions that cause reflux of urine into the kidney may prevent reflux nephropathy.
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Mathews R, Damm T, Mattoo TK. Primary vesicoureteral reflux and reflux nephropathy. In: Johnson RJ, Floege J, Tonelli M, eds. Comprehensive Clinical Nephrology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2024:chap 62.
Yaqoob MM, Ashman N. Kidney and urinary tract disease. In: Feather A, Randall D, Waterhouse M, eds. Kumar and Clark's Clinical Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 36.
Reviewed By: Walead Latif, MD, Nephrologist and Clinical Associate Professor, Rutgers Medical School, Newark, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.