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Retroperitoneal fibrosis


Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

Retroperitoneal fibrosis (RPF) is a relatively rare condition that is characterised by a chronic inflammatory and fibrotic process in the retroperitoneum that can lead to compression of structures within the retroperitoneum1. This fibrotic process can often lead to encasement of the aorta, vena cava, ureters and psoas muscle. It may extend from the renal pedicle to below the pelvic brim.

  • RPF is thought to be an autoimmune response to an insoluble lipid that has leaked through a thinned arterial wall from atheromatous plaques.

  • The centre of the plaque is usually located at the level of the aortic bifurcation. The fibrous tissue may bifurcate and follow the common iliac arteries.

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RPF is a rare disease. It most commonly affects patients between the ages of 40 and 60. There is a male predominance, with a male-to-female ratio estimated to be approximately 2:1 or 3:1. The true incidence is unknown but is estimated to be 1 per 200,000 to 500,000 per year.

Paediatric RPF is a very rare entity with fewer than 40 reported cases worldwide, the majority of which have known secondary causes3.


Approximately 75% of cases are idiopathic RPF2. The recently advocated concept and diagnostic criteria of immunoglobulin G4 (IgG4)-related disease has led to widespread recognition of RPF associated with IgG4-related disease4.

Identified secondary causes include56:

  • Drugs: eg, methysergide, beta-blockers, methyldopa, amfetamines, phenacetin, pergolide and cocaine.

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm.

  • Trauma to the renal tract.

  • Infection.

  • Retroperitoneal malignancy7.

  • Post-irradiation therapy or chemotherapy.

RPF may also be associated with primary biliary cirrhosis, fibrosing mediastinitis, panhypopituitarism, glomerulonephritis, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, polyarteritis nodosa, ankylosing spondylitis, hemilaminectomy, hypothyroidism, carcinoid tumour and Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

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Symptoms may occur such as low back pain, nonspecific systemic complaints, and lower limb oedema1. The diagnosis is usually late when a patient is evaluated for renal insufficiency and obstructive uropathy.

  • Most patients present with nonspecific symptoms, including dull abdominal pain, of less than 12 months in duration.

  • Patients may present with the complications of RPF - see 'Complications' section below.

  • Early clinical features depend on any underlying cause.

  • Advanced disease causes obstructive uropathy. The patient may present with acute kidney injury or chronic kidney disease resulting from ureteric involvement.

  • Reduced blood flow to the lower limbs may cause features of peripheral arterial disease.

  • The most common presentation is pain, which may occur in the loin, back, scrotum or lower abdomen6.

  • Fever, weight loss, nausea and vomiting, malaise and peripheral oedema may occur.

  • Urinary features include polyuria, polydipsia, anorexia, nocturia, oliguria, urinary frequency and haematuria.

  • Children may present with hip or gluteal pain.

Differential diagnosis78

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There needs to be a high index of suspicion of a diagnosis of RPF when patients present with an elevated ESR and CRP and renal insufficiency from obstructive uropathy.

Biopsy remains the gold standard for diagnosis but radiological investigations may also be useful8.

  • Blood and urine tests: findings may include renal function tests (renal dysfunction), FBC (anaemia, raised white cell count), raised ESR, and urinalysis and urine culture (pyuria).

  • Plain X-ray: nonspecific but may show evidence of complications - eg, bowel obstruction, pulmonary oedema (acute kidney injury).

  • Ultrasound: may help in identifying the retroperitoneal mass; can demonstrate the degree of obstruction to the ureters and kidneys.

  • Barium follow-through and enema: bowel obstruction.

  • Intravenous urography (IVU): shows dilated ureters with medial deviation of ureters. IVU may lead to contrast nephropathy; therefore, good hydration is essential and IVU should be used with caution in the elderly and those with renal impairment (always check renal function beforehand).

  • Retrograde pyelography: for patients with severely impaired renal function.

  • Aortography, venography, and lymphangiography help in assessing the level and extent of occlusion.

  • CT and MRI scanning: delineation of the extent of the retroperitoneal fibrosis and help to exclude secondary causes.

  • Isotope renography is useful in the serial assessment of renal function.

  • Biopsy under CT guidance9: differentiate benign masses from malignant retroperitoneal masses; biopsy in RPF shows periaortic inflammation with lymphocyte and plasma cell infiltrate.

  • The diagnosis may not be established until surgical exploration.


  • In drug-related RPF, stopping the offending drug may result in resolution of urinary tract obstruction and symptoms.

  • Medical treatment of RPF depends on the underlying cause. In patients with idiopathic RPF, glucocorticoids are traditionally considered the mainstay of treatment. The medical literature describes an 80% response rate when treating RPF with steroids alone1.

  • Rituximab has also been used with good effect10.

  • Drainage of the upper urinary tract can be performed as a temporary measure. Percutaneous nephrostomy helps restore renal function, fluid, electrolyte and acid-base balance prior to surgery.

  • Surgery may be required to resolve urinary tract obstruction or obstruction of other structures6.

  • Laparoscopic ureterolysis is very effective for patients with RPF of all causes, with morbidity and efficacy comparable to open surgery.


  • Hypertension.

  • Fibrosis may cause compression of the major arteries, veins and lymphatics, resulting in thrombophlebitis, arterial insufficiency and lower limb oedema.

  • Obstruction of the duodenum and colon may cause bowel obstruction.

  • Obstruction of the common bile duct may cause jaundice.

  • Spinal involvement may cause neurological abnormalities in the lower limbs.


Symptoms often begin to improve within a few days of starting treatment and CT imaging may demonstrate resolution of the mass a few weeks later. Full resolution will depend on the degree of severity of the disease and the degree of entrapment of retroperitoneal structures at presentation - particularly renal or bowels1.

  • Idiopathic (non-malignant) RPF has a generally good prognosis unless not appropriately diagnosed or treated, when the disease can cause severe complications - eg, end-stage kidney disease.

  • Malignant RPF has a poor prognosis. Most patients only live for 3-6 months after receiving a diagnosis of malignant RPF.

  • Lifelong follow-up is required for possible progressive or recurrent disease.

Further reading and references

  • Majdoub AE, Khallouk A, Farih MH; [Retroperitoneal fibrosis: about 12 cases]. Pan Afr Med J. 2017 Nov 1;28:194. doi: 10.11604/pamj.2017.28.194.10092. eCollection 2017.
  • Omar MA, Karim NH, Samnakay S; A case of retroperitoneal fibrosis secondary to chronic periaortitis. BJR Case Rep. 2019 Apr 29;5(3):20190011. doi: 10.1259/bjrcr.20190011. eCollection 2019 Sep.
  1. Engelsgjerd JS, LaGrange CA; Retroperitoneal Fibrosis
  2. Vaglio A, Maritati F; Idiopathic Retroperitoneal Fibrosis. J Am Soc Nephrol. 2016 Jul;27(7):1880-9. doi: 10.1681/ASN.2015101110. Epub 2016 Feb 9.
  3. Subramani AV, Lockwood GM, Jetton JG, et al; Pediatric idiopathic retroperitoneal fibrosis. Radiol Case Rep. 2019 Jan 31;14(4):459-462. doi: 10.1016/j.radcr.2019.01.006. eCollection 2019 Apr.
  4. Chen LYC, Mattman A, Seidman MA, et al; IgG4-related disease: what a hematologist needs to know. Haematologica. 2019 Mar;104(3):444-455. doi: 10.3324/haematol.2018.205526. Epub 2019 Jan 31.
  5. Omar MA, Karim NH, Samnakay S; A case of retroperitoneal fibrosis secondary to chronic periaortitis. BJR Case Rep. 2019 Apr 29;5(3):20190011. doi: 10.1259/bjrcr.20190011. eCollection 2019 Sep.
  6. Sheth R, Malik D; Bilateral Hydronephrosis From Retroperitoneal Fibrosis. Cureus. 2020 Dec 18;12(12):e12147. doi: 10.7759/cureus.12147.
  7. Sica A, Casale B, Spada A, et al; Differential Diagnosis: Retroperitoneal Fibrosis and Oncological Diseases. Open Med (Wars). 2019 Dec 26;15:22-26. doi: 10.1515/med-2020-0005. eCollection 2018.
  8. Peisen F, Thaiss WM, Ekert K, et al; Retroperitoneal Fibrosis and its Differential Diagnoses: The Role of Radiological Imaging. Rofo. 2020 Oct;192(10):929-936. doi: 10.1055/a-1181-9205. Epub 2020 Jul 22.
  9. Perez-Sanz MT, Cervilla-Munoz E, Alonso-Munoz J, et al; Retroperitoneal fibrosis associated with orbital pseudotumor without evidence of IgG4: A case report with review of literature. Intractable Rare Dis Res. 2019 Feb;8(1):29-35. doi: 10.5582/irdr.2018.01075.
  10. Wallwork R, Wallace Z, Perugino C, et al; Rituximab for idiopathic and IgG4-related retroperitoneal fibrosis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2018 Oct;97(42):e12631. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000012631.

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The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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