Pregnancy and Urolithiasis Treatment & Management

Updated: Aug 20, 2021
  • Author: Robert O Wayment, MD; Chief Editor: Bradley Fields Schwartz, DO, FACS  more...
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Approach Considerations

The initial management of urolithiasis in pregnancy should be conservative. Intravenous hydration and analgesia have been shown to result in spontaneous passage of symptomatic calculi in 64-84% of patients. [6, 7]  Bed rest, antiemetics, and antibiotics are also important, when indicated. Some stones may simply become asymptomatic, allowing delay of further treatment. Symptomatic urolithiasis is more likely to resolve when calculi are located in the renal pelvis as opposed to the distal ureter. [31]

Extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy (ESWL) is contraindicated in pregnancy due to animal studies associating this treatment with fetal death and malformations. [32]

Treatment goals in the remaining patients are to reduce maternal discomfort, to prevent renal damage and sepsis due to obstructing calculi, and to minimize risks to the fetus. If conservative measures fail to relieve clinical symptoms or to pass calculi, appropriate surgical intervention should be undertaken.

Urine should be strained to obtain stones when they are passed. Chemical analysis should then be performed to guide postpartum treatment and diet modifications to prevent future stone formation. However, because of the physiologic and electrolytic changes associated with pregnancy, metabolic studies should be postponed until completion of pregnancy.


Medical Care

Pain management 

Several narcotics have been tested for use during pregnancy. Morphine sulfate, hydromorphone, butorphanol, meperidine, and acetaminophen provide temporary symptomatic relief without harming the fetus. However, avoid codeine during pregnancy because of its association with fetal defects. Long-term use of narcotics in pregnancy can lead to fetal narcotic addiction and even intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR) or premature labor. [33]

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are also contraindicated because of an increased risk of miscarriage when used in the first trimester. In addition, fetal renal anomalies, fetal pulmonary hypertension, and premature closure of the ductus arteriosus are risks when NSAIDS are prescribed close to term.

Medical expulsive therapy (MET) 

Medical expulsive therapy (MET) is a pharmacologic approach thought to augment the spontaneous passage of ureteral calculi. Ureteral stone passage may be facilitated by alpha-adrenoceptor blockers. These agents promote relaxation of ureteral smooth muscle and have been found to increase rates of stone passage, to hasten stone passage, and to decrease the amount of pain associated with stone passage. [34, 35]

Small retrospective studies of women receiving the alpha adrenergic blocking agent tamsulosin as medical expulsive therapy found no significant differences in maternal or infant outcomes for any of the examined variables compared with the control group. These results suggest it may be considered as adjunctive therapy for urolithiasis during pregnancy. [36, 37]

However, the usage of MET drugs in pregnancy has not been well studied, and both their safety and utility are still unknown. The super-selective alpha blockers tamsulosin and alfuzosin are considered Pregnancy Category B drugs, while the nonselective alpha blockers terazosin and doxazosin, calcium channel blockers, and glucocorticoid are all considered Pregnancy Category C. Selective alpha 1a blockers have not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use during pregnancy; thus, their use in the treatment of stone disease is also considered off-label. [38]  

Calcium stone disease

Medical management for reduction of calcium stone disease is contraindicated. Thiazide diuretics, which markedly reduce calciuria and resultant stone formation, are a viable treatment option for urolithiasis in the general population. However, thiazide diuretics are contraindicated during pregnancy because they may induce fetal thrombocytopenia, hypoglycemia, and hyponatremia. Additionally, diuretics are generally dangerous because they may interfere with the normal extracellular volume expansion of pregnancy.

The safest method of medically managing calcium stone disease during pregnancy is to increase fluid intake and to avoid excessive calcium intake (including calcium-fortified prenatal vitamins). Typically, calcium intake should not exceed 1000-1200 mg/d during pregnancy. This treatment may prevent or reduce the risk of urolithiasis during pregnancy. Sodium intake and protein consumption should also be curtailed.

Uric acid disease

In uric acid stone disease, xanthine oxidase inhibitors (eg, allopurinol) prevent uric acid stone formation by inhibiting the final step in human purine metabolism, thereby decreasing both serum and urinary uric acid levels. However, use of xanthine oxidase inhibitors is contraindicated during pregnancy because the effects of the drug on the fetus are unknown. Alternative treatment modalities for uric acid stones during pregnancy include increasing fluid intake, limiting dietary purine intake, and increasing urinary alkalinization.

Cystine stone disease

Patients with cystine stone disease often have known cystinuria prior to conception. Despite contraindications to the use of common drug therapy, research has shown that careful medical management can allow women with cystinuria who form stones to safely undergo pregnancy without increased risk.

Penicillamine reduces cystine stone formation by interchanging disulfide bonds with cystine residues, thereby separating cystine-cystine bonds and allowing increased cystine solubility. Severe or serious adverse effects occur in about 50% of patients. Because penicillamine has been reported to cause fetal abnormalities in rats, it is contraindicated during pregnancy.

Increasing urinary volume to 3000 mL and urine alkalinization to an optimal urinary pH of around 7.5 are alternative means to treat cystinuria during pregnancy. However, patients with high urinary excretion of cystine (ie, >300 mg/24 h) may need low-dose penicillamine treatment. Studies performed by Gregory and Mansell (1983) suggest that the risk of recurrent stone formation may outweigh the theoretical risks of penicillamine exposure in this particular situation. [8]

Alpha-mercaptopropionyl glycine (alpha-MPG) is an alternative to penicillamine. It has the same mechanism of action and is roughly equal in efficacy, with somewhat fewer and milder adverse effects. Like penicillamine, it is contraindicated in pregnancy.


Surgical Care

Surgical intervention is required in 20-30% of pregnancies complicated by urolithiasis. [11] Surgical strategies include placement of a ureteral stent or percutaneous nephrostomy, to provide temporizing drainage of an obstructed system until completion of the pregnancy, or ureteroscopic methods to definitively diagnose and treat the stone.

A broad spectrum of interventions, ranging from ureteral stent placement to open lithotomy, have been used to successfully treat urolithiasis in pregnancy [9] ; however, regardless of the mode or invasiveness of the surgical intervention (eg, endoscopic, percutaneous, open), each carries an element of risk to the mother and fetus. Thus, surgical intervention is reserved for pregnant patients in whom conservative management fails or when surgery is otherwise indicated. Admission of these patients by the obstetrician service for consultation with a urologist is not unusual. As a result, most if not all, of these women undergo noninvasive fetal monitoring.


Indications for surgical intervention include the following:

  • Ureteral obstruction associated with increasing azotemia
  • Obstruction in a solitary kidney
  • Intractable pain despite maximal conservative measures
  • Urosepsis
  • Renal colic–induced premature labor unresponsive to tocolytics

Temporizing measures

Traditional treatment has consisted of initial placement of a percutaneous nephrostomy tube or insertion of a ureteral stent for temporary drainage. [9] Ureteral stents and/or nephrostomy tubes are then changed at periodic intervals until delivery, thus allowing delay of definitive treatment until completion of pregnancy.


Ureteroscopy is gaining favor as a first-line approach to urinary calculi that require intervention. [21, 39, 30, 23] Improved instruments and increased experience have led to successful outcomes with few complications. Disbanding of supposed limitations (anatomical distortion late in pregnancy) and resolution of many associated concerns (anesthesia, radiation) has resulted in advocacy from previous opponents. [40, 17] These significant changes represent a paradigm shift in intervention for urolithiasis in pregnancy that is unresponsive to conservative treatment.

A study of serial stenting vs ureteroscopy for treatment of urolithiasis during pregnancy found that ureteroscopy was less costly and more effective for urolithiasis, irrespective of gestational age at diagnosis but most beneficial for women who received the diagnosis early during pregnancy. [41]

Ureteral stent placement

Internal stents are usually placed with ultrasound guidance or limited fluoroscopy with local anesthesia. This minimizes risks of radiation and anesthesia to the fetus. Increasing oral hydration and decreasing calcium intake is recommended to prevent stent encrustation secondary to urinary stasis, hypercalciuria, or infection. Replacing stents every 3-4 weeks and antibiotic prophylaxis are suggested to avoid urinary tract infection and calcification. [9] Insertion of percutaneous nephrostomy tubes or ureteral stents is considered a minor procedure, yet repeated insertions or changes may carry risks comparable with those of definitive ureteroscopy in a single setting. [23] The obstetrician should be involved for fetal monitoring.

Ureteral stents often cause irritative voiding symptoms and chronic discomfort. [42] The physiologic hydroureteronephrosis of pregnancy has been found to aggravate that by allowing more frequent stent migration within the dilated system. [43] Parulkar and coworkers (1998) studied a group of 70 pregnant patients with urolithiasis; 19 patients required intervention, 15 of whom had ureteral stents placed. They reported that 5 of 15 patients (>30%) required subsequent manipulation because of migration, encrustation, or severe irritative symptoms. [6]

Denstedt and Razvi (1992) recommend limiting ureteral stent placement until after 22 weeks of pregnancy, with use of a percutaneous nephrostomy prior to that point. [9] If a ureteral stent is indicated but cannot be placed with ultrasound guidance or if urosepsis is present, a percutaneous nephrostomy tube should be placed instead.

Disadvantages to internal ureteral stent include the following:

  • Urinary tract infections and promotion of ascending infections
  • Hematuria
  • Irritative voiding symptoms and renal colic due to stent
  • Stent migration due to hydroureteronephrosis of pregnancy
  • Multiple procedures to change stent to avoid encrustation
  • Need for patient compliance and vigilant follow-up for stent change

Percutaneous nephrostomy

Use this treatment modality in patients with urosepsis or pyonephrosis. This procedure can be performed with local anesthesia and ultrasound guidance. Nephrostomy tube placement allows for rapid and adequate decompression of the upper urinary tract, control of pain due to acute obstruction, and resolution of the infected hydronephrosis. Another advantage of placing a percutaneous nephrostomy tube is that it may be used for antegrade irrigation with an antibiotic solution to decrease the risk of infection and tube encrustation. [44] Internalization of a double-J stent can be performed after recovery from the original illness. This procedure needs to be performed by a physician experienced in percutaneous procedures. Disadvantages to percutaneous nephrostomy include the following:

  • Bacteruria despite preventive antibiotics
  • Frequent obstruction, requiring change and/or flushing
  • Cumbersome external appliance
  • Risk of bleeding
  • Discomfort

Percutaneous nephrolithotomy

Percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL) is usually considered contraindicated in the pregnant patient due to the prolonged use of fluoroscopy and general anesthesia, and the need for the patient to be in a prone position. [32] However, there have been case reports of successful use of PCNL to treat urolithiasis during pregnancy with no major complications.  A review of 16 cases of PCNL during pregnancy concluded that the procedure was feasible if performed by an experienced endourologist as part of a multidisciplinary medical team. [37]

Ureteroscopy and stone manipulation

Ureteroscopy allows for complete visualization of the entire ureter and renal pelvis, enabling accurate diagnosis and definitive treatment for urolithiasis. Anatomic distortion near the completion of pregnancy has long been thought to make ureteroscopy impossible; however, ureteroscopy has been found to be safe and effective in all stages of pregnancy. [21, 39, 30, 23] Scarpa et al also found that rigid ureteroscopy could be performed on the entire urinary tract, even in advanced pregnancy. [30] The above group of series, along with the work of Lemos and associates, [22]  represent 68 patients who underwent ureteroscopy for diagnosis and/or treatment; no obstetrical complications were reported, and only one ureteral perforation was reported. The one perforation [23] was treated successfully with a stent, and the child was born healthy at term.

Most ureteroscopies are performed without use of radiation. In the above studies, radiation was used sparingly in only a few patients; furthermore, Ulvik et al (1995) [23] and Scarpa et al (1996) [30] used no radiation. Physiologic hydroureteronephrosis of pregnancy allows entry of the ureteroscope under direct vision without dilation of the ureteral orifice; dilation is rarely performed. [11, 30, 23]

General anesthesia is rarely used. The vast majority of procedures have been performed with epidural or spinal analgesia with an element of sedation. Scarpa et al performed ureteroscopies in five patients without anesthesia and used only neuroleptic anesthesia (fentanyl or propofol and atropine) in 10. [30] Ulvik et al concluded that sedation analgesia may be preferred to spinal or general anesthesia. [23] Both rigid and flexible scopes have been used successfully.

In a study by Rivera et al of 26 women with urolithiasis during pregnancy, the number of anesthetic events and the anesthesia time were no different in patients treated with temporizing stents than in those who underwent ureteroscopic stone extraction. In the ureteroscopy group, the median number of anesthetic exposures was 1.18 and the median total anesthetic time was 80 minutes. In the stent group, six of the 15 required multiple stent exchanges for a median of 1.47 anesthetic events and a median total anesthetic time of 70 minutes. [45]

Kavoussi and associates (1998) suggest that definitive ureteroscopy may be preferable to stenting in select patients (particularly patients >6 wk prior to term). [43] Ulvik and associates [23] found that hospital stay was significantly shorter in patients who underwent ureteroscopy patients (mean, 2.7 d) compared with those who received ureteral stents (mean, 7 d). [7]

Stone retrieval via ureteroscopy has been performed successfully in many forms. [46, 21, 30, 23] These include holmium YAG Laser, pulsed dye laser, ballistic lithotriptor, ultrasonic lithotriptor, basket retrieval, and forceps crush and retrieval; all were used successfully without known complications. The holmium YAG laser, with less than 1 mm of penetration, has been used most frequently in the more recent studies. [46, 21, 39]  Akpinar and associates reported that routine stent placement with a string for 72 hours postoperatively reduced pain and analgesic requirements in pregnant patients who underwent ureteroscopy and holmium laser lithotripsy. [46] \

Contraindications to ureteroscopy include the following [11] :

  • Stones larger than 1 cm
  • Multiple calculi
  • Sepsis
  • Transplanted kidney
  • Ureteroscopic inexperience or inadequate instruments
  • Absence of general obstetrical services or high-risk obstetrical services

Open surgery

In the past, pregnant patients who required intervention for urolithiasis underwent open lithotomy or blind stone manipulation under general anesthesia, similar to the general population. However, more modern procedures for surgical treatment of urolithiasis are performed without anesthesia or radiation and carry lower morbidity rates while maintaining equal or greater success rates. Consequently, open surgery is now used as a last resort. Open surgery is used if a stone must be removed before delivery because of complications of conservative or invasive management of urolithiasis, or if contraindications to ureteroscopy are present.

Percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL), when indicated, is best postponed until postpartum because of the risks to the fetus of anesthesia and radiation. [11]

Extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy (ESWL) is frequently used in the nongravid population; however, it requires frequent use of ionizing radiation, and the potential adverse effects of energy dispersion on the fetus are unknown. At this time, ESWL is contraindicated during pregnancy. [47]

Surgical risk

Physiologic organ system changes increase specific perioperative risk factors in the pregnant patient. Special attention to these risk factors can help prevent associated morbidity to the mother and fetus.


Pregnancy-related changes in the cardiovascular and hematologic systems create a hypercoagulable state and place the patient at increased risk of venous thromboembolism and pulmonary embolism. The risk of venous thromboembolism is progressive throughout gestation and, in the third trimester, is estimated to be 5-6 times greater than that for a nongravid female. [17]

The increasing size of the gravid uterus changes the hemodynamics in the lower extremities. Compression of the great vessels by the uterus reduces the velocity of venous blood return, increases pressure, and increases the risk of stasis in the lower extremities. [17] Hematologic changes include increased plasma levels of clotting factors VII, VIII, and X and fibrinogen [33] , as well as a decrease in fibrinolytic activity [17] .

Low-dose heparin is considered safe and effective by some researchers and is recommended in patients with a history of thromboembolism. [48]


Pregnancy-related changes in gastrointestinal function and relative anatomy increase the risk of inadvertent perioperative aspiration. These changes include compromised integrity of the gastroesophageal sphincter, decreased gastrointestinal motility, and a decrease in the pH of gastric secretions. [33] Intravenous proton pump inhibitors provide acid suppression and may be used in the perioperative period as prophylaxis for acid aspiration syndrome during induction of anesthesia. [49]

Fetal risks of anesthesia

Inhalation anesthetics readily cross the placenta because of their lipid solubility. These agents have been shown to increase risk of teratogenicity. General anesthesia should be avoided during the first trimester, after which the risk is minimal. [11]



Management of pregnant patients with urolithiasis should always involve the obstetrician. When treatment beyond conservative measures is indicated, for the fetus' safety, coordinated care with a neonatologist, an anesthesiologist, and a radiologist is appropriate.



Dietary modification is the cornerstone of preventing urolithiasis. General recommendations include dietary moderation of high-oxalate foods and purines with an increase in fluid intake. Salt and sodium intake should also be moderated because of their tendency to increase fluid retention and hypercalciuria. Low-calcium diets frequently cause a paradoxical rise in calcium stone formation and are discouraged.

Specific long-term dietary changes should ideally be based on objective information from the stone composition analysis and 24-hour urine chemistry determinations.

A low-oxalate diet tends to prevent calcium oxalate stone formation. Common foods that are high in oxalate include chocolate, nuts, green leafy vegetables, coffee, spinach, beets, and tea. Moderation and proportionate reductions are suggested rather than complete avoidance of high-oxalate foods that the patient enjoys.

While excessively high calcium ingestion is discouraged, unusually low-calcium diets can also increase stone production by allowing increased oxalate absorption from the gastrointestinal tract. Low calcium intake may also lead to a decrease in calcium deposition in bone, with associated osteopenia and osteoporosis. In general, one calcium meal per day is suggested. If a calcium supplement is being used by the patient, calcium citrate seems to be the least likely to increase calcium stone production because of a compensatory increase in urinary citrate excretion with this particular supplement.

Drinking at least 2 qt of water per day decreases the risk of stone formation. Actually, recommending a fluid intake sufficient to generate a 24-hour urine volume of 2000 mL per day may be better. A patient guide to maintaining an increased urinary volume developed by Stephen W. Leslie, MD, FACS, may be helpful. This recommendation applies to stones of all types. In patients unable to drink the required amount of water, lemonade is a reasonable substitute. Lemon juice is high in citrate, which is a natural inhibitor of kidney stone formation.

A low-methionine diet has been reported to decrease the risk of cystine stone formation. Methionine is a dietary precursor of cystine. However, this diet is unpalatable, and patient compliance is poor. 

Diets that are high in purines and green vegetables may increase the likelihood of stone formation. A low-purine diet decreases the risk of both uric acid and calcium stone formation. This diet requires avoidance of red meats, beef, chicken, fish and peanuts.



Complications secondary to surgical interventions are more common in the pregnant population; however, they are becoming increasingly infrequent with increased experience and improved technology. Physiologic changes of pregnancy are associated with an increase in perioperative risk. Complications of any surgical procedure may include the following:

  • Aspiration
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Premature delivery

Complications of internal stent placement may include the following:

  • Stent incrustation, which may be accelerated in pregnancy and require change every 3-4 weeks [9]
  • Infection
  • Sepsis
  • Stent migration

Complications of percutaneous nephrostomy may include the following:

  • Recurrent obstruction necessitating frequent flushing or replacement
  • Infection or sepsis secondary to tube obstruction
  • Fetal harm secondary to prolonged anesthesia requirements and ionizing radiation
  • Premature delivery [50]
  • Risk of bleeding caused by nephrostomy tube placement, tube dislodgement, and erosion

According to recent studies, complications of ureteroscopy and intracorporeal lithotripsy in pregnancy are rare in experienced hands. [22, 21, 39]  The risk of complications may be mildly increased because of the anatomic changes of pregnancy; however, the possible complications do not differ from those in the general population. These types of risks include the following:

  • Ureteral injury
  • Perforation
  • Subsequent stricture formation

Complications of open surgery include an increased risk of premature delivery. The rate of premature delivery after surgery is 6.5% during the first trimester, 8.6% during the second trimester, and 11.9% during the third trimester. Intrauterine growth restriction or premature birth (complication of receiving general anesthesia during pregnancy) is more likely.



Prevention is the best cure for urolithiasis, and multiple investigators have suggested prophylactic measures to prevent the difficult course of treating urolithiasis in pregnancy. Denstedt and Razvi (1992) suggested prophylactic treatment of asymptomatic caliceal stones in women of childbearing age who are planning pregnancies. [9]  Biyani and Joyce (2002) recommended metabolic evaluation in known stone formers, as well as prophylactic treatment of asymptomatic stones prior to pregnancy. [11]  In support of their recommendation, they cited Glowacki et al (1992), whose study monitored 107 asymptomatic patients with renal calculi over 31.6 months and found that 31.8% became symptomatic over that period.