We’re born with two kidneys, a pair of bean-shaped organs that balance the amount of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and phosphate within our bodies. The multi-functioning kidneys also filter out waste from urine, as well as regulate our blood pressure and red blood cells.
The kidneys attach to the bladder, which is connected to the urethra through which urine is emptied. Stationed in the middle of the back and below the ribs, each kidney straddles the spine. That’s the normal placement of our kidneys. However, according to the Urology Care Foundation, about one out of 900 people are born with a kidney in an abnormal location due to a congenital abnormality developed in the womb. These people have what is known as an ectopic kidney, or renal ectopia.
The Different Types of Ectopic Kidneys
Renal ectopia is divided into two types. A simple renal ectopia is marked by a kidney sitting on each side of the spine, but above or below its normal placement. The other type is a crossed renal ectopia, which occurs when both kidneys develop on the same side of the spine. Crossed renal ectopic kidneys sometimes fuse together.
The condition doesn’t cause any health problems or symptoms if one or both kidneys function properly. In fact, most people don’t know they have an ectopic kidney until it’s detected by medical tests for another disorder.
Yet some people experience pronounced symptoms stemming from renal ectopia that could produce a urinary tract infection; pain and/or a lump in the abdomen; bloody urine; frequent urination; or a burning sensation when you urinate.
To determine whether you have an ectopic kidney, a doctor will order a series of imaging tests such as an ultrasound and MRI. Other tests specific to urinary tract disorders include voiding cystourethrograms, an exam that uses X-rays to picture urine flow through the bladder and urethra, or a radionuclide scan that can pinpoint the location of the ectopic kidney and whether there are any blockages in the urinary system.
In some cases, urine cannot drain through the urinary system due to an ectopic kidney, leading to a condition called vesicoureteral reflux (VUR). This back-up of urine in the kidneys may damage the organs, resulting in infections and possibly kidney disease if not treated. Slow-draining urine could also cause a build-up of calcium and oxalate in the kidneys, which eventually develop into painful kidney stones.
Because ectopic kidneys rarely produce symptoms, treatment is only needed when health issues like a urinary tract infection arise. In those instances, your doctor will investigate further and suggest treatments. For example, a blockage in the urinary tract can be extracted to ensure a better flow of urine and prevent infections and VUR.
If one ectopic kidney is found to be badly scarred or not working as it should, your doctor may recommend removing the kidney as long as the other kidney is healthy. (You can live with one fully functioning kidney.) Surgery can also move the kidney to its correct position.
Caring for Your Kidneys
The team of physicians at Associates in Nephrology specialize in the treatment of kidneys. Your renal health is vitally important to your overall well-being, so anytime you experience symptoms that could indicate a kidney disorder, visit us and we can diagnose your condition and prescribe treatment options. Contact us for an appointment today.