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A kidney or ureteral stent is a thin plastic tube placed in your ureter (a urine-propelling tube made of smooth muscle) between your kidney and your bladder. The top portion of the stent is placed in your kidney and the bottom is in your bladder.
Stents are mostly temporary and removed after a few days, but it's possible to need one for months or years. It’s not visible outside the body, and inserting a kidney stent is a simple outpatient procedure.
Some people may need a nephrostomy, where the stent is inserted into the kidney and drains urine directly into a bag outside the body. Typically, a doctor will only use a nephrostomy catheter if a kidney stent cannot be inserted, which may be the case if there’s scarring or something else that prevents proper placement.
Doctors use ureteral stents in three specific situations:
To bypass a blockage, if you have one in your kidney or ureter. Blockages can result from blood clots, inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, or other cause of ureteropelvic junction obstruction, a mainly inherited condition in which urine flow is impaired.
While you pass a kidney stone prevent it from blocking the flow of urine.
After kidney stone surgery it protects your ureter while it heals and ensures urine can flow despite any postoperative swelling.
A kidney stent is usually temporary, used only for days or weeks, and then removed. People with narrow ureters or tumors may need a stent for longer. In this case, stents are replaced every three to six months.
Over 80% of patients¹ may experience irritation from a kidney stent. Irritation typically resolves after the stent is removed and is generally less bothersome than kidney stone pain. Side effects of stents include:
Increased frequency of urination, particularly during the day
Increased urgency of urination
Incomplete emptying of the bladder, particularly in men
Pain between the hips and ribs or in the lower abdomen
Incontinence (lack of control of urination)
Hematuria (blood in the urine)
In men, pain at the tip of the penis
Your doctor may prescribe medication such as alpha-blockers to help relieve stent-associated discomfort. If the irritation worsens, you may be tested for a urinary tract infection, as having a stent can increase the risk.
While most increased urination frequency is typically more prominent while you’re up and about, nocturia (needing to pee more at night) can interfere with sleep.
Stent insertion is a routine outpatient procedure, though it typically requires general anesthesia (where you’re “asleep” during the procedure and don’t feel any pain). The surgeon will use x-ray or ultrasound imaging and insert a small scope device with a lens through the urethra and into the bladder. A thin guidewire will be threaded through the scope and used to place the stent.
You will need somebody to drive you home because of the lingering effects of sedation. You should drink lots of water to help your kidneys function. Blood in the urine is normal for the first couple of days.
Temporary stents may have an attached small string hanging out of the end of the urethra, allowing removal without a second procedure. If you have one of these strings, your doctor may advise you to avoid sexual activity until the stent is removed.
The discomfort caused by a kidney stent is generally less severe than pain from a blockage or stones. However, most people do notice some level of discomfort, which can make it hard to sleep.
If you’re worried, consider asking your doctor about alpha-blockers or other medications that can improve your comfort. Many people also find sleeping on the side opposite the stent more comfortable as it reduces pressure.
Here are some tips to get a better night's sleep with a kidney stent:
If you’re trying to pass a stone, your doctor will recommend drinking a lot of water. However, drinking water late at night increases your need to pee during the night, which can significantly affect your quality of sleep if you struggle to fall back to sleep. Keep hydrated by drinking your water earlier in the day.
Some people prefer to work out at night. However, physical activity can increase discomfort in people with kidney stents, so it’s best to avoid it near bedtime. In addition, some parts of your gym routine may not be safe while you have a stent, so if you plan to work out, speak with your doctor about which exercises to avoid.
Constipation can contribute to stent-related discomfort. You can combat constipation by boosting your fiber intake.
All the practices you know you should implement to improve your quality of sleep every night are even more important when trying to sleep with a stent. Keep your bedroom dark and cool, avoid screen time before bed, and stick to your sleep schedule.
If you’re considering trying sleeping pills or supplements, speak with your doctor first. Your doctor will also advise if taking over-the-counter pain medications is safe.
The most significant risk associated with kidney stents is the risk of infection. Because the stent is foreign, your body might try to reject it, resulting in a urinary tract infection. If your stent triggers an infection, your doctor may remove it early.
Other possible risks include:
Stent breakage, migration, or expulsion
An encrusted stent if it’s left in too long
These risks are more common when the stent is in place long term. Seek medical attention immediately if you can see the tip of the stent outside your body. Otherwise, be aware of other signs of complications, including difficulty urinating, large blood clots, or blood in the urine that doesn’t resolve.
Like a kidney stent, a percutaneous nephrostomy² carries the risk of infection, which might progress to septic shock. Another risk is blockage or kinking of the tube. Monitor for signs of an infection and reach out to your doctor immediately if you have pain around your kidneys, fever, chills, or other symptoms that might indicate infection.
If you have a stent, you’ll likely need to see your doctor again to have it changed or removed. However, if your stent is equipped with a removal string, your doctor may instruct you to remove it yourself.
Contact your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following signs of complications:
Clots and tissue in your urine (a small amount of blood is normal)
Extreme pain or a burning sensation when urinating
Dark, cloudy, or foul-smelling urine
A dull ache deep on the left or right side near your kidneys
Fever or chills
If you have an infection, you’ll need prompt treatment. It’s essential to see your doctor if your stent becomes visible, regardless of whether or not you have other signs of complications.
You should also speak with your doctor if discomfort from the stent is affecting your daily life, as they may be able to prescribe medication to help. In most cases, the discomfort associated with a stent is less severe than the pain you would experience without it.
You may need a kidney stent or nephrostomy if you have a temporary or permanent blockage of your urethra. The vast majority of stents are inserted into the urethra, only in place for a short while, and removed once the blockage is resolved or the urethra has healed.
Sleeping with a stent can be challenging, and if discomfort or irritation keeps you awake, you should speak with your doctor about medication to help. You can also try exercising earlier in the day, limiting water before bed, and sleeping on the side opposite the stent.
If you notice signs of an infection while you have a stent, contact your doctor right away.
Insights: Why urologists use ureteral stents | Urology Health
Ureteral stent | Kids Health
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