What is an Ectopic Kidney?

Most people are born with 2 kidneys. Factors can sometimes affect how the kidneys develop. An ectopic kidney is a kidney that does not grow in the proper location. Information here will help you talk with your urologist if you or your child has an ectopic kidney.

What Happens Under Normal Conditions?

Male Urinary Tract
Male Urinary Tract
Medical Illustration Copyright © 2015 Nucleus Medical Media, All rights reserved

Female Urinary Tract
Female Urinary Tract
Medical Illustration Copyright © 2015 Nucleus Medical Media, All rights reserved

The urinary tract is the body’s drainage system. It includes two kidneys, two ureters, a bladder, and a urethra.

Healthy kidneys work day and night to clean our blood. These 2 bean-shaped organs are found near the middle of the back, just below the ribs. One kidney sits on each side of the spine.

Our kidneys are our body’s main filter. They clean about 150 quarts of blood daily. Every day, they form about 1-2 quarts of urine by pulling extra water and waste from the blood. Urine normally travels from the kidneys down to the bladder and out through the urethra.

As a filter, the kidney controls many things to keep us healthy:

  • Fluid balance
  • Electrolyte levels (e.g., sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, acid)
  • Waste removal in the form of urine
  • The regulation of blood pressure and red blood cell counts

When the kidneys are damaged, they may not function well. In most cases, some damage won’t cause too many problems. But, major damage may require more treatment, like dialysis.

As a child develops in the mother’s uterus, the kidneys form first in the child’s lower belly. They slowly move up to their final position on both sides of the spine as they develop.

What is an Ectopic Kidney?

Ectopic Kidney
Ectopic Kidney
Image © 2003 Fairman Studies, LLC

Ectopic kidney (or “renal ectopia”) describes a kidney that isn’t located in its usual position. Ectopic kidneys are thought to occur in about 1 out of 900 births. But only about 1 out of 10 of these are ever diagnosed. They may be found while treating other conditions.

Ectopic kidneys don’t move up to the usual position. They can be located anywhere along the path they usually take to get to their normal place in the upper abdomen.

One may also cross over so that both kidneys are on the same side of the body. When a kidney crosses over, the two kidneys on the same side often grow together and become fused.

Simple renal ectopia refers to a kidney that’s located on the proper side but in an abnormal position.

Crossed renal ectopia refers to a kidney that has crossed from its side, to the other side. Both kidneys are located on the same side of the body. These kidneys may or may not be connected.

Renal ectopia is often linked to birth defects in other organ systems.



What are the Symptoms of Ectopic Kidneys?

The most common symptoms linked to the ectopic kidney are:

A kidney in an abnormal spot may still work properly. But because of the change, it may have problems draining. Up to 1 out of 2 ectopic kidneys are at least partly blocked. Over time, these blockages can lead to serious problems, such as:

Ectopic kidneys are also linked to vesicoureteral reflux (VUR ). VUR is a condition where urine backs up from the bladder through the ureters into the kidneys. Over time, VUR can lead to infections. Infections can cause damage to the kidney that can’t be fixed. The non-ectopic kidney can also have problems like blockages or VUR.



How is Ectopic Kidney Diagnosed?

Only about 1 out of 10 ectopic kidneys are ever diagnosed. Often, health care providers find ectopic kidneys while treating other conditions. A health care provider may also find them when looking for the cause of symptoms mentioned earlier. These imaging tests could help your health care provider find an ectopic kidney:

Your health care provider may also order blood tests to see how well your kidneys are working.



How is an Ectopic Kidney Treated?

An ectopic kidney only needs to be treated if there’s a blockage or urine backing up into the kidney (VUR).

If the kidney isn’t badly damaged by the time the abnormality is discovered, surgery can remove the blockage or fix VUR. But if the kidney is badly scarred and not working well, it may need to be removed.



What Can I Expect after Treatment for an Ectopic Kidney?

It’s possible to live a normal life after a kidney is removed if the remaining kidney is working well.