What Is Retroperitoneal Fibrosis

  • Talita Utomo BSc Biomedical Science, University of Sheffield

Decoding retroperitoneal fibrosis: a comprehensive guide

Imagine if the very walls that protect and support your vital organs began to close in, slowly constricting your body's lifelines and causing pain and discomfort. This is the harrowing reality of retroperitoneal fibrosis – a condition that, while rare, has the potential to disrupt lives in many ways. 

In this article, we will embark on a structured exploration of this disease, dissecting its causes, diagnostic challenges, treatment options, and the potential impact on those affected. As we delve into this lesser-known medical condition, our aim is to provide you with a clear and methodical overview of retroperitoneal fibrosis. By the end of this journey, you will possess a solid grasp of the condition and its implications.

What is retroperitoneal fibrosis?

Retroperitoneal fibrosis is a rare medical condition characterised by the abnormal growth of fibrous tissue in the retroperitoneum, which is the area at the back of the abdominal cavity, behind the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity). When surrounding tissues like blood arteries and organs are compressed or covered by this fibrous tissue, it can result in a number of issues.1

Numerous symptoms, such as back or abdominal discomfort, as well as potentially more serious problems, including renal blockage that may lead to kidney damage or failure, can be brought on by the disorder. Most of the time, retroperitoneal fibrosis, often known as idiopathic fibrosis, has an unclear cause, although it can also be linked to underlying health conditions such as autoimmune diseases or the use of certain drugs or lifestyle choices.

Patients with retroperitoneal fibrosis often fall within the 50–60 age range. Retroperitoneal fibrosis is more frequently diagnosed in men than in women, with some studies suggesting that men are two to three times more likely to develop the condition. 1 in 200,000 to 500,000 people in the world have retroperitoneal fibrosis each year.

Causes and risk factors

Retroperitoneal fibrosis presents itself in two forms: idiopathic retroperitoneal fibrosis and secondary retroperitoneal fibrosis. Idiopathic retroperitoneal fibrosis is characterized by its elusive nature, where the disease arises without any apparent cause. Idiopathic retroperitoneal fibrosis cases often make medical professionals do extensive testing to rule out potential triggers, making their diagnosis and management particularly difficult.

On the other hand, secondary retroperitoneal fibrosis is tied to specific causes. Autoimmune disorders such as lupus and thyroiditis, certain medications, infections, malignancies, or prior abdominal surgeries can trigger the development of fibrous tissue in the retroperitoneum.4 Identifying the underlying cause is very important in these cases, as it allows targeted treatment of retroperitoneal fibrosis and addresses the root issue of the problem. By distinguishing between idiopathic and secondary forms of retroperitoneal fibrosis, medical practitioners can look for more effective ways to alleviate symptoms.5

Symptoms and clinical presentation

Retroperitoneal fibrosis can manifest itself in various symptoms, the most common ones being:

  1. Abdominal or lower back pain 
  2. Hypertension: high blood pressure is often seen in retroperitoneal peritonitis patients due to its effect on the kidneys and their arteries.  
  3. Weight loss, which is often accompanied by a loss of appetite
  4. Edema in the lower extremities: swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet is often observed due to improper circulation of blood.

Other atypical symptoms are difficulty urinating or frequent urination, fevers, impaired kidney functions, scrotal pain, pulmonary embolisms, gastrointestinal problems, and DVTs (deep vein thrombosis).6,7

Because the causes of most retroperitoneal fibrosis are not known, many medical professionals have difficulty  diagnosing patients with this disease. Many of the symptoms mentioned above are not specific and may mimic other conditions such as kidney stones and UTIs. In cases of secondary retroperitoneal fibrosis, medical professionals have to find the underlying cause which will take more tests and time. 

Possible complications

Many issues, some of which might be significant and have long-term effects, can result from retroperitoneal fibrosis. Some typical side effects from this condition are:

  1. Kidney  damage or  failure:  kidney damage or renal failure is one of the most alarming  side effects. The kidneys' tubes that deliver urine from the kidneys to the bladder might get clogged due to retroperitoneal fibrosis. If this blockage is not treated immediately, urine may return back into the kidneys, resulting in hydronephrosis (kidney swelling), which eventually will result in kidney damage or failure.
  2. UTIs: retroperitoneal fibrosis may block the urinary tract, making it more vulnerable to infections. Urinary tract infections might recur, causing pain and sometimes making treatment more challenging.
  3. Treatment complications: surgical removal of the fibrous tissue or the use of immunomodulatory medications are two treatment options for retroperitoneal fibrosis that pose a risk of infection, haemorrhage, and adverse drug reactions. 
  4. Relapse: even after receiving effective therapy, retroperitoneal fibrosis can occasionally return, requiring continued observation and possibly further procedures.

Diagnosis and diagnostic tools

Completing a thorough medical history is the first step in the intricate process of diagnosing retroperitoneal fibrosis. It is common practice to inquire about a patient's medical history, current medicines, and the kind and length of their symptoms. It is crucial to give a complete and accurate medical history since it helps doctors make their diagnosis. 

The medical evaluation is usually followed by a physical examination. A physical examination is usually insufficient for a final diagnosis, even if it may disclose some common symptoms, such as stomach or lower back pain, that can be linked to retroperitoneal fibrosis. Thus, imaging investigations are conducted as part of the diagnostic procedure.

A key factor in the diagnosis of retroperitoneal fibrosis is imaging. The retroperitoneum is frequently visualised using computed tomography (CT) scans, which enables medical professionals to evaluate the existence and extent of fibrous tissue development in surrounding tissues. Additionally, more in-depth pictures of the retroperitoneum and an evaluation of the tissue's features can be obtained using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Furthermore, renal and ureteral involvement can be assessed using ultrasound and intravenous urography. These techniques are especially useful for detecting hydronephrosis or kidney swelling brought on by ureteral blockage.8,9

To definitively confirm the diagnosis, a biopsy of the afflicted tissue may be necessary. Typically, minimally invasive methods like core needle biopsy or fine-needle aspiration are used to perform biopsies. They assist in excluding other possible reasons and offer crucial details regarding the tissue.

Healthcare professionals need to do a comprehensive differential diagnosis at every stage of the process in order to rule out other illnesses that could present with similar symptoms as retroperitoneal fibrosis share certain characteristics with retroperitoneal fibrosis, diseases such as kidney stones, UTIs, and cancers must be carefully examined.10

Treatment and management

A comprehensive strategy for therapy and care is required for retroperitoneal fibrosis. The extent of fibrous tissue development, symptoms, and any underlying reasons ultimately determine the best course of action. Three essential elements are involved in the management and therapy of retroperitoneal fibrosis:


  1. Corticosteroids: prednisolone is one of the corticosteroid medications that are commonly recommended as the first line of therapy for retroperitoneal fibrosis. These anti-inflammatory drugs work to stop new fibrous tissue growth and relieve inflammation. Corticosteroids frequently work well to reduce symptoms and stop the course of illness.8
  2. Immunomodulatory medications: immunomodulatory medications make your immune system work more effectively, such as mycophenolate mofetil or azathioprine. These medications help the immune system to lessen the process of fibre formation. They are frequently only used when corticosteroids are deemed inadequate on their own.2

Surgical procedures

  1. Ureteral stent implantation may be required if the patient experiences ureteral blockage, which may induce renal damage or failure. A ureteral stent is a tube placed into the ureter to keep it open and allow urine to flow from the kidneys to the bladder properly. The implantation of a stent can alleviate blockage and maintain renal function.11
  2. Surgical resection: If the problem cannot be successfully managed with medication and stent implantation, surgical resection of the fibrous tissue may be required. Usually, surgical resection is done when the cases are very severe. The surgical strategy will depend on the size, location, and likelihood of complications of the fibrous tissue development.12


Retroperitoneal fibrosis must be managed with routine monitoring and follow-up care. This involves regular imaging tests to evaluate how the fibrous tissue is developing and how well the therapy is working. Monitoring blood pressure, renal function, and symptom progression is critical. Furthermore, follow-up appointments enable medical professionals to address any possible issues or pharmaceutical side effects and modify treatment plans accordingly.

Retroperitoneal fibrosis treatment and care are individualised, with the best course of action determined by the specific needs of each patient. Providing complete care requires close coordination between the patient, urologists, nephrologists, and other medical professionals. 


The uncommon disorder known as retroperitoneal fibrosis is characterised by abnormal development of fibrous tissue in the retroperitoneum, which can cause symptoms such as weight loss, urinary problems, and abdominal discomfort. Its nonspecific symptoms, unusual manifestation, and the requirement to rule out related illnesses make diagnosis tricky. A thorough medical history, physical examination, imaging (CT, MRI), laboratory testing, and occasionally a biopsy are all part of the diagnosis process.

Both management and treatment have several facets. Drugs that inhibit the course of illness and decrease inflammation include corticosteroids and immunomodulatory medications. Surgical procedures such as ureteral stent implantation or fibrous tissue removal may be required in severe instances or when medication is not sufficient. Renal damage, recurrence risk, urinary tract infections, and hypertension are examples of complications.

Follow-up treatment and close observation are crucial. For those with retroperitoneal fibrosis, early diagnosis, individualised therapy, and complete medical care can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.


  1. Lambert G, Samra NS. Anatomy, Abdomen and Pelvis, Retroperitoneum [Internet]. Nih.gov. StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK549857/
  2. Amis ES. Retroperitoneal fibrosis. American Journal of Roentgenology. 1991 Aug 1;157(2):321–9.
  3. Engelsgjerd JS, LaGrange CA. Retroperitoneal Fibrosis [Internet]. Nih.gov. StatPearls Publishing; 2022 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482409/
  4. Augusto Vaglio, Federica Maritati. Idiopathic Retroperitoneal Fibrosis. Journal of The American Society of Nephrology [Internet]. 2016 Feb 9 [cited 2023 Oct 31];27(7):1880–9. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/jasn/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2016&issue=07000&article=00006&type=Fulltext
  5. Arezou Khosroshahi, Carruthers M, Stone JH, Shweta Shinagare, Sainani NI, Hasserjian RP, et al. Rethinking Ormond’s Disease. Medicine [Internet]. 2013 Mar 1 [cited 2023 Oct 31];92(2):82–91. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553983/
  6. Scheel PJ, Feeley N. Retroperitoneal Fibrosis. Medicine [Internet]. 2009 Jul 1 [cited 2023 Oct 31];88(4):202–7. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/md-journal/Fulltext/2009/07000/Retroperitoneal_Fibrosis__The_Clinical,.00002.aspx
  7. Rohit Baslas, Dorina Condurache, Greenstein D, Patrone L, Shahir Hamdulay. P147 Venous fibrosis and stenosis in IgG4-related disease. Rheumatology [Internet]. 2022 Apr 23 [cited 2023 Oct 31];61(Supplement_1). Available from: https://academic.oup.com/rheumatology/article/61/Supplement_1/keac133.146/6573108?login=true
  8. Fernando A, Pattison JM, Horsfield C, Bultitude M, D’Cruz D, O’Brien T. A lot of questions (and a few answers …) in retroperitoneal fibrosis. BJU International. 2015 May 23;
  9. Peisen F, Wolfgang Thaiss, Ekert K, Horger M, Amend B, Bedke J, et al. Retroperitoneal Fibrosis and its Differential Diagnoses: The Role of Radiological Imaging. RöFo [Internet]. 2020 Jul 22 [cited 2023 Nov 1];192(10):929–36. Available from: https://www.thieme-connect.de/products/ejournals/html/10.1055/a-1181-9205
  10. Retroperitoneal Fibrosis | The UK Kidney Association [Internet]. Ukkidney.org. 2016 [cited 2023 Nov 2]. Available from: https://ukkidney.org/rare-renal/patient/retroperitoneal-fibrosis
  11. Kusaka J, Matsumoto S, Hagiwara S, Koga H, Noguchi T. Use of perioperative ureteral stent in abdominal aortic aneurysm with retroperitoneal fibrosis - A report of two cases -. Korean Journal of Anesthesiology [Internet]. 2012 Jan 1 [cited 2023 Nov 2];63(1):76–6. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22870371/
  12. Miho Akabane, Shusuke Haruta, Fujii T, Urabe M, Ohkura Y, Ueno M, et al. Idiopathic retroperitoneal fibrosis mimicking infiltrative malignancy: a case report. Journal of International Medical Research [Internet]. 2022 Feb 1 [cited 2023 Nov 2];50(2):030006052210797-030006052210797. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/03000605221079769
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Talita Utomo

BSc Biomedical Science, University of Sheffield

Talita is a second-year Biomedical Science student with a passion for science and a commitment to making a meaningful impact. Beyond her professional journey, she has discovered an interest in writing health articles, combining her scientific background with effective communication skills.

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