Review – Endo-urology
Complications in Percutaneous Nephrolithotomy
Maurice Stephan Michela, Lutz Trojana, Jens Jochen Rassweilerb,*
aDepartment of Urology, Medical School Mannheim, University of Heidelberg, Germany
bDepartment of Urology, SLK Kliniken Heilbronn, University of Heidelberg, Germany
Percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PNL) was estab-
lished as a minimally invasive treatment option
for removal of kidney stones in the 1970s and was
further developed in the ensuing years [1–3]. How-
ever, PNL frequency diminished with the introduc-
tion of extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL)
in the early 1980s . In recent years, as clinical
experience with ESWL revealed its limitations, the
role of PNL for treating urolithiasis was redefined
[5–7]. Today, PNL should be the first-line treatment
for large or multiple kidney stones and stones in
the inferior calyx . Furthermore, improvements
in instruments(i.e., flexible
ureteroscopes) as well as lithotripsy technology
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Objective: This review focuses on a step-by-step approach to percuta-
neous nephrolithotomy (PNL) and its complications and management.
Methods: Based on institutional and personal experience with >1000
patients treated by PNL, we reviewed the literature (Pubmed search)
focusing on technique, type, and incidence of complications of the
Results: Complications during or after PNL may be present with an
overall complication rate of up to 83%, including extravasation (7.2%),
transfusion (11.2–17.5%), and fever (21.0–32.1%), whereas major compli-
cations, such as septicaemia (0.3–4.7%) and colonic (0.2–0.8%) or pleural
injury (0.0–3.1%) are rare. Comorbidity (i.e., renal insufficiency, diabetes,
gross obesity, pulmonary disease) increases the risk of complications.
Most complications (i.e., bleeding, extravasation, fever) can be managed
conservatively or minimally invasively (i.e., pleural drain, superselective
renal embolisation) if recognised early.
successful outcomes in PNL with minimal major complications is the
correct selection of patients. A well-standardised technique and post-
operative follow-up are mandatory for early detection of complications.
# 2006 European Association of Urology. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
* Corresponding author. Department of Urology, SLK Kliniken Heilbronn,
Am Gesundbrunnen 20, D-77074 Heilbronn, Germany. Tel. +49 7131 492400;
Fax: +49 7131 492429.
E-mail address: email@example.com (J.J. Rassweiler).
0302-2838/$ – see back matter # 2006 European Association of Urology. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.eururo.2006.10.020
yttrium-aluminum-garnet laser) increased the effi-
cacy of percutaneous stone disintegration yielding
stone-free rates of >90% [9,10].
that percutaneous procedures are performed by
69.6% of the respondents with a mean of 16.8
PNL procedures a month, clearly underlining the
importance of the procedure . Ultrasound renal
scanning and PNL are performed more frequently
outside of Europe, possibly because of larger stone
burdens of the affected patients.
PNL is generally a safe treatment option and asso-
ciated with a low but specific complication rate .
Many complications develop from the initial punc-
ture with injury of surrounding organs (e.g., colon,
spleen, liver, pleura, lung). Other specific complica-
tions include postoperative bleeding and fever.
Based on personal experience with >1000 cases
[1,3,13,14] and an overview of the literature, we
present PNL as a step-by-step approach including
the description of possible complications and their
origin and management.
2. Materials and methods
Experience gathered at three German centers (Stuttgart,
Mannheim, Heilbronn) since 1984 includes >1000 cases, for
which the results have been published previously [3,13–15]. In
addition, a Medline search was performed reviewing the
literature published between 1982 and 2006.
2.1. Mannheim experience
Recently, the series from Mannheim have been intensively
studied for intraoperative and postoperative complications
 including 315 PNL treatments (156 men, 159 women;
ureteric stones from 1987 to 2002.
2.2. Preparation of patients
The careful selection and preparation of patients is of utmost
importance to decrease the complications of PNL. All patients
underwent the following diagnostic work-up:
? Definition of stone size (kidney-ureters-bladder [KUB] and
? Anatomy of the collecting system (intravenous pyelogram)
? Urine analysis and culture
? Serum creatinine, clotting parameters
? Isotope renogram if indicated (i.e., staghorn calculus)
In case of a staghorn calculus or existing urinary tract
infection (UTI), the patients were treated with antibiotics
according to the testing (i.e., gyrase inhibitors, gentamicin) at
least 1 d prior to the procedure. Patients with decreased renal
function were pretreated with intravenous infusion of normal
2.3. Technique of PNL
The entire procedure, particularly the initial puncture, is
performed in the urology department with the patient under
general anaesthesia. Prior to the procedure, a retrograde study
is performed and a ureteral balloon catheter placed at the
ureteropelvic junction. The collecting system is moderately
filled with contrast dye (i.e., with addition of methylene blue).
As previously published in detail [1,3,15], PNL is carried out
with the patient placed in the prone position. One may use a
specially designed cushion enabling a deflected position to
place the patient flat on the fluoroscopic table. Some authors
prefer an oblique prone  or oblique supine position [16,17].
Positioning of the patient
For the puncture of the collecting system, we use a combina-
tion of ultrasound (freehand technique, fully guided system)
and fluoroscopy. Based on sonographic imaging, the puncture
is carried out to the desired calyx. The final placement of the
needle is mostly performed under fluoroscopic control. A
peripheral puncture to transverse a minimum of cortical
tissue has to be accomplished, to avoid injury to major
intrarenal vessels, to avoid fistula injury, to establish the
shortest tract between the skin and calyx, and to minimise
radiation exposure, as verified in a similar study .
Afterwards, a 0.97-mm floppy-tipped guidewire is passed
through the needle into the collecting system. A working
channel is then established using the Alken telescope metal
dilators system (Storz, Tuttlingen, Germany) under X-ray
control to 24–26F . Then, a standard 26F nephroscope is
placed directly into the kidney over the established tract.
Alternatively, a dilatation balloon system together with an
Amplatz sheath can be used.
The number and type of access depend on the treated
stone size (i.e., staghorn stone) and localisation (upper pole,
lower pole) as well as on the treatment strategy (single-
session PNL vs. combination with ESWL). Whereas some
authors prefer a standardised access through the lower calyx
with additional treatment of stones not reachable via this
access by subsequent ESWL [3,13], other authors advocate
multiple tracts (i.e., upper pole) to clear the collecting system
in a single session [19–21]. Advantages of upper pole access
include optimal manipulation in case of stone burden in the
upper and lower calices; however, this has a slightly
increased complication rate (i.e., pleural injury) [21,22].
Puncturing of the collecting system
For stone disintegration we prefer using an ultrasound
lithotripsy probe. Except for very hard stones (i.e., calcium
oxalate monohydrate) it enables fragmentation with simul-
taneous evacuation of the gravel. Other alternatives include
the use of ballistic devices or holmium/yttrium-aluminum-
garnet laser. Flexible nephroscopy is used when stone
fragments migrate into other calyces or in case of additional
european urology 51 (2007) 899–906
stone burden in other calyces not accessible by the rigid
At the end of the procedure, a 22F Foley catheter is used as a
nephrostomy tube and blocked with 1–2 ml in the renal pelvis.
Alternatively, a red rubber catheter or a detachable silicone
balloon catheter can be placed. An antegrade nephrogram is
taken 24–28 h after the procedure (depending on the clarity of
urine). The tube is removed if no extravasation or retained
calculi are present.
3.1. Mannheim experience
Overall, early complications occurred in 50.8% of
the primary PNL (160 patients). Most of the early
complications resolved without sequelae. Minor
complications in our series included transient fever
(32.1%), clinically insignificant bleeding (7.6%), or
both (3.2%). A total of 3.5% of the patients developed
UTI without signs of urosepsis, and 3.2% of patients
suffered from renal colic. Major complications
included septicaemia in 0.3%, renal haemorrhage
requiring angiographic intervention in 0.3%, and
acute pancreatitis in 0.3%. The 30-d mortality rate
was 0.3% (Table 1).
3.2.Review of the literature
In the current literature, the total complication
rate is up to 83% [2,19–24]. These complications are
mostly clinically insignificant bleeding or fever. The
number of significant bleedings is reported as <8%
[19–27]. Conservative treatment is successful in
most of these cases and in our series no blood
transfusion was required. However, a 5–18% blood
transfusion rate is reported in the literature [19–28].
The frequency of major complications was 0.9–4.7%
for septicaemia and 0.6–1.4% for renal haemorrhage
requiring intervention [19–31]. Rates of access-
related complications were 2.3–3.1% for pleural
and 0.2–0.8% for colonic injury (Table 1) [19–34].
Significant complications in PNL can be divided into
complications related to the access and those
related to the stone removal.
The sources of intraoperative complications are
generally attributable to:
? Incorrect patient selection
? The lack of adequate equipment
? Technical errors
4.1. Patient selection
percutaneous endourologic procedures, but parti-
cularly when selecting patients for PNL. Surpris-
ingly, reports suggest that PNL in pretreated kidneys
is not associated with a higher morbidity but the
procedure may take longer and usually leads to a
higher percentage of auxiliary procedures .
patient selectionis important for all
? PNL is contraindicated if the patient has an
untreated coagulopathy, UTI, or pyonephrosis.
? The presence of concomitant disease such as
diabetes or pulmonary disease or cardiovascular
disease enhances the risk of a suboptimal out-
come for PNL; a similar situation occurs in the
presence of malfunctioning kidneys or infected
? If the patient is grossly obese or has a spinal
deformity, a branched collecting system, or a
horseshoe or malrotated kidney, the procedural
difficulty is increased. There might be a contro-
versy about obesity; however, at least in the
authors’ experience gross obesity increased the
risk of complications. It is technically more
european urology 51 (2007) 899–906
Table 1 – Complications in PNL: an overview of literature
and the Mannheim experience
series (n = 315 )
7.2% (n = 582 )
0.6% (n = 318 )
1.4% (n = 1854 )
11.2% (n = 582 )
17.5% (n = 103 *
21.0% (n = 81 )
21.4% (n = 103 *
22.4% (n = 582 )
0.8% (n = 582 )
0.97% (n = 103 *
2.2% (n = 318 )
4.7% (n = 128 )
0.2% (n = 1000 )
0.2% (n = 582 )
0.29% (n = 5039 )
0.8% (n = 250 )
2.3% (n = 128 )
3.1% (n = 582 )
0.3% (n = 318 )
0.3% (n = 582 )
0.78% (n = 128 )
PNL = percutaneous nephrolithotomy; NA = not available.
*Multitract PNL due to large staghorn stones.
demanding (i.e., length of nephroscope sheath)
and the patients usually suffer from associated
diseases (i.e., diabetes mellitus).
? Large stone size will increase rate of complica-
4.2. Correct preparation and equipment
by careful positioning of the patient and reduces
the possibility of subsequent intraoperative com-
plications. The following positions are described:
Positioning of the patient
? The flat prone position on a fluoroscopic table
? The deflected prone position on a cushion
? The oblique prone position on a fluoroscopic table
? The oblique supine position ona fluoroscopic table
The deflection of the patient placed on special
cushion may increase the distance between the 12th
rib and iliac spine, thereby enlarging the area for
adequate puncturing of the kidney. On the other
hand,thisleads toa higherposition of the patienton
the fluoroscopic table, which may interfere with the
handling of the nephroscope and probes. Urologists
favouring the oblique supine position claim it
facilitates an easier access for the subsequent
PNL [16,17]. It is important to note that with the
patient in the oblique supine position, the axis of
the kidney will not be the same as in the flat prone
because of improved visibility during ultrasound
scanning . The use of a flexible silicone sheath
enables easier manipulation when inserting the
The type of needle and sheath
a facette-cuttip are preferable
Urologists have to check all instruments (i.e.,
dilators, graspers, nephroscope) properly prior to
the procedure, especially the functionality of the
lithotriptor devices (i.e., ultrasonic, ballistic, laser).
Moreover, it is advisable to have at least two
different devices for stone disintegration available.
Instruments for PNL
Although in the United States and United Kingdom,
renal access is established by radiologists, in
some European centres, urologists do the puncture,
using combined ultrasound/fluoroscopic guidance
Puncturing of the collecting system
systems such as a sector scanner or semicurved
scanner . This technique allows a more sophis-
ticated approach because it is possible to determine
the axis of the kidney exactly and, by injecting a
contrast dye, ensures that the needle is correctly
positioned (Fig. 1).
It is also possible to perform an ultrasound-
guided freehand puncture using a sector scanner
and with the patient in an oblique supine position,
but this freehand technique, and its use particularly
in the oblique supine position, requires a greater
degree of experience than when using a fully guided
Noneof the ultrasound-based
requires any additional diagnostic imaging techni-
ques, such as a computed tomography urogram.
However, these might be useful to determine
the choice of the calyx for optimal stone manipula-
Usually, a subcostal approach is used, although a
supracostal approach is preferred for certain indica-
tions such as superior calyx stones, staghorn stones,
or stones of the proximal ureter . A significant
chest complication rate of about 5% must be
european urology 51 (2007) 899–906
Fig. 1 – Renal vascular anatomy. Puncture of renal pelvis or
through caliceal infundibulum leads to an increased risk
of vascular injury.
It is important to avoid perforation of the renal
pelvis when introducing the guidewire after punc-
turing the calyx. In the literature, perforation rates
up to 7.2% are reported . This potential problem
can be avoided by using a J guidewire, which has a
soft tip. We prefer a guidewire with an inner core. It
is also vital to incise the fascia parallel to the needle
to avoid problems with the dilatation process. In
some problematic cases (i.e., previous renal sur-
gery), it may be preferable to use a more rigid
guidewire such as the Lunderquist wire.
Placement of the guidewire
4.4. Complications related to the access
A common source for a bleeding during PNL is the
nephrostomy tract itself. These bleedings can be
prevented if the kidney is strictly punctured through
a calyx and a minimal angulation of the dilation
system and nephroscope shaft is used (Fig. 1). To
avoid extensive angulation, a flexible nephroscope
should be used for stone parts in other calyces. If
bleeding significantly impairs the endoscopic view,
the procedure should be terminated; a nephrostomy
should be placed  and clamped for 40–60 min to
provide haemostasis. The second procedure can be
carried out after 24 or 48 h if macrohaematuria has
cleared to provide optimal precondition for the
reintervention. In a case of persistent relevant
bleeding, renal angiography should be performed
with the possibility of a superselective embolisation
(Fig. 2A and B).
Lacerations can occur during the dilation of the
tract and during definitive surgery in terms of stone
removal. Fluoroscopic monitoring of the dilation
process (metal dilator, balloon) can minimise the
riskof laceration. If lacerations occur, intraoperative
bleeding can be induced and is likely to hamper the
further procedure. If significant bleeding in terms of
decreased visibility or haemoglobin-relevant bleed-
ing occurs, a nephrostomy tube should be placed
nephrostomy may tamponade further bleeding.
Lesions of the vascular system can also lead to
late bleeding complications arising from pseudoa-
neurysm or arteriovenous fistulas and usually need
therapeutic intervention (i.e., embolisation) .
These complications are rare but can occur up to
3 weeks after PNL. Stone size was identified by
Srivastava et al. as a risk factor for these complica-
tions. Urologists have to keep them in mind because
they are present in about 1% of the patients .
48 h later.The
126.96.36.199. Pleural injury. The risk for an injury of the
pleura and the lung increases if the puncture is
above the 12th rib (10%). Puncture using ultrasound
control or a puncture after exhalation may prevent
pleural injury. If the puncture is through the pleura,
extravasation of irrigation fluid or the entry of air
into the pleural space should be prevented. If a
hydrothorax (pleural effusion) or haematothorax
occurs, a chest tube has to be inserted. Thoraco-
scopy or thoracotomy is only very rarely necessary.
Of course, the preference of lower calyx access in
combination with flexible nephroscopy or ESWL
practically avoids this complication [13,15,19,21,22].
188.8.131.52. Injury of the duodenum, colon, and other abdominal
organs. More than 30 published papers report on
colonic injury during PNL. The largest, recently
published series of 5039 procedures  identified
several risk factors including left-side procedure,
horseshoe kidney, and advanced patient age. The
european urology 51 (2007) 899–906
Fig. 2 – Arterial bleeding after percutaneous nephrolithotomy from a lower pole artery (A) and occlusion of the lower pole
artery by superselective coiling (B).
the patient. Additionally, the urologist should be
cautious if the patient has had previous bowel
surgery, which increases the potential risk for injury
of the duodenum or the colon. If an extraperitoneal
perforation occurs, the gastrointestinal tract must
be separated from the urinary tract (Fig. 3). There-
fore, a catheter has to be placed into the colon and
conservative treatment with antibiotics can be
performed. Conservative treatment of colonic injury
is successful in most cases [32–35]. In case of an
intraperitoneal perforation, open surgery has to be
performed immediately. The risk of puncturing of
the colon can be minimised by the use of sono-
graphic control (visualisation of the bowels) and
correct patient selection (as the risk factors have
An injury of the spleen is very unlikely if the
puncture is below the 12th rib; however, the
presence of splenomegaly increases the risk. Injury
to the spleen can be prevented by puncture under
ultrasound control. Spleen injuries are, in most
cases, associated with relevant bleeding and there-
fore emergency exploration and splenectomy must
4.5. Complications related to the stone removal
Septicaemia can occur as a result of infection
introduced via the access to the kidney or if the
stones are infected. Following PNL, fever is signifi-
cantly higher and more frequent in patients with
infected urinary stones than in those with sterile
stones . Renal insufficiency increases the risk.
Prophylactic antibiotics and draining of a pyone-
phrotic kidney before performing PNL is mandatory
. Antibiotics can be applied by single-dose or
short-course prophylaxis protocols with no signifi-
cant differences between them in case of sterile
urine . The duration of surgery and the amount
of irrigation fluid are significant risk factors for
postoperative fever . It is also important to
prevent a high pressure in the collecting system 
and to keep the duration of operating time to a
minimum (i.e., <90 min).
Sepsis rates reported in the literature vary from
0.97%  to 4.7% . In our series, one patient
(0.3%) died from urosepsis despite adequate anti-
biotic treatment . In cases where septicaemia
has occurred, the patient should receive intensive
care therapy including forced diuresis, antibiotic
treatment, optimal renal drainage, and electrolyte
origin of an observed acute pancreatitis remains
The common source for extravasation and fluid
absorption is a perforation of the collecting system.
Methods of prevention include manipulation only
under X-ray or endoscopic control, use of an open or
continuous flow system, and use of normal saline as
irrigant. However, even with these precautions a
high-fluid volume syndrome may develop. There-
fore,if the fluid discrepancy
exceeds 500 ml, the procedure should be stopped
and a nephrostomy placed. Monitoring of the serum
electrolytes is mandatory.
Urine extravasation following PNL may occur in
case of severe perforation of the collecting system or
the nephrostomy tract (extraperitoneal). Problems
are flank pain or signs of infections under antibiotic
treatment. Percutaneous drainage of the urinoma
and the collecting system (i.e., additional double-J or
mono-J stent) may become necessary.
Extravasation and fluid absorption
european urology 51 (2007) 899–906
Fig. 3 – Colonic injury after failed renal puncture for
percutaneous nephrolithotomy. Clearly, filling of the
intestine by contrast agent is detected after filling of the
To avoid the complications associated with percu-
taneous endourologic procedures and to ensure
optimum outcomes for patients, urologists must
consider a number of factors when planning or
performing PNL (Table 2). Therefore, training and
experience of the urologist are critical, as is careful
patient selection, accurate positioning, and use of
the best available instruments.
Conflicts of interest
In this article there is no funding or any disclosure to
companies, except for the fact that the study was
sponsored by the EUSP of the EAU.
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David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA,
This is a well-written review on the complica-
tions of percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PNL) for
large renal and impacted proximal ureteral stones
and the authors are to be commended for their
accurate andhonest analysis.Theauthors present
their large experience with an overall complica-
tion rate of 50.8%, including a minor complication
rate of 49.6%. This finding corresponds to their
ence, PNL remains a milestone technique in
the urologic field with a very low percentage of
major complications and with a very high success
Of note, the incidence of big staghorn calculi has
drastically decreased, and more stones in the 2-cm
range are seen. The new generation of flexible
ureteroscopes has been significantly improved in
terms of therapeutic and diagnostic efficacy .
Also the advances in lithotripsy, in particular,
the holmium laser, have resulted in increased
treatment success for stones and reduced proce-
dure-related morbidity . The success rate for
intrarenal stones >2 cm after the first or second
95% . The complication rate reported varies from
1.5% to 12% [3–5], including major and minor com-
plications. Of note, the incidence of major compli-
cations suchasureteralavulsion orperforationhas
decreased to the 0% range in the most recently
published data . The disadvantage of uretero-
scopy to PNL is that ureteroscopy may require
multiple procedures to clear a big stone and to
extract the fragments, as opposed to PNL, which
can offer a 95% stone-free rate after the first treat-
ment . The cost to pay for this high success rate
is, indeed, a higher complication rate. Further stu-
procedure versus the other.
 Mcdougall EM. Percutaneous approaches to the upper
urinary tract. In: Walsh PC, et al., editors. Campbell’s
urology. ed 8. Philadelphia: Sanders; 2002. p. 3320–60.
 Johnson BG, Portela D, Grasso M. Advanced ureteroscopy:
wireless and sheathless. J Endourol 2006;20:552–5.
 Dimarco DS, Chow GK, Gettman MT, Segura JW. Uretero-
scopic treatment of upper tract urinary calculi. Minerva
Urol Nefrol 2005;57:17–22.
 Krambeck AE, Murat FJ, Gettman MT, Chow GK, Patterson
DE, Segura JW. The evolution of ureteroscopy: a modern
 Segura JW, Preminger GM, Assimos DG, et al. Ureteral
stones Clinical Guidelines Panel summary report on the
management of ureteral calculi. American Urological
Association. J Urol 1997;158:1915–21.