Percutaneous Nephrolithotomy (PCNL)

Percutaneous Nephrolithotomy (PCNL) is a surgical procedure specifically designed to remove large or complex kidney stones (nephrolithiasis) that cannot be treated effectively with less invasive methods such as Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy (ESWL) or Ureteroscopy.

It is a preferred method for stones that are too large, are of a certain composition, or are located in a place where other procedures are less likely to be successful.

Understanding Percutaneous Nephrolithotomy (PCNL)

PCNL is a minimally invasive surgical technique for the removal of kidney stones via a small incision in the back. A nephroscope (a type of endoscope) is inserted directly into the kidney to locate and remove the stones.

For particularly large stones, a device may be used to break them into smaller pieces, which are then easier to remove. This procedure is typically performed under general anesthesia.

Indications for PCNL

PCNL is generally recommended for patients with:

  • Large kidney stones (typically larger than 2 cm)
  • Staghorn calculi, which are large stones that occupy a significant portion of the kidney
  • Stones that have not responded to other treatments like ESWL or ureteroscopy
  • Stones that are too dense or in locations that are difficult to reach with less invasive methods

The Procedure

The PCNL procedure involves several key steps:

  1. Patient Preparation: After administering general anesthesia, the patient is positioned prone (face down) to provide access to the kidney.
  2. Access: Using ultrasound or fluoroscopic guidance, the surgeon makes a small incision (about 1 cm) in the back and inserts a needle into the kidney. A wire is passed through the needle to establish a tract, and a series of dilators are used to enlarge this tract enough to insert the nephroscope.
  3. Stone Removal: Through the nephroscope, the surgeon can see and remove the stones directly or use laser, ultrasonic, or pneumatic devices to break up larger stones first. The stone fragments are then extracted through the nephroscope.
  4. Stent Placement: A temporary ureteral stent may be placed to facilitate urine flow from the kidney to the bladder and help the kidney heal.
  5. Closing the Incision: The incision site is closed with sutures, and a drain may be placed to remove any fluid that accumulates post-surgery.

Benefits of PCNL

  • Effective for Large Stones: PCNL allows for the removal of large and complex stones in a single procedure.
  • Minimally Invasive: Compared to open surgery, PCNL involves smaller incisions, resulting in less pain and quicker recovery.
  • High Success Rate: This procedure has a high success rate in completely clearing stones from the kidney.

Potential Risks and Complications

While PCNL is generally safe, it does carry potential risks, such as:

  • Bleeding requiring a blood transfusion
  • Infection
  • Injury to surrounding organs
  • Possible need for additional procedures if all stones are not removed


Recovery from PCNL usually involves a short hospital stay of 1 to 2 days. Patients may experience pain around the incision site, which can be managed with medication. Most normal activities can be resumed within 1 to 2 weeks, but strenuous activities should be avoided for up to 6 weeks.
Follow-up appointments are crucial to monitor healing and ensure all stones were successfully removed.


Percutaneous Nephrolithotomy (PCNL) is a highly effective surgical option for patients with large or complex kidney stones, offering a less invasive alternative to open surgery with a quicker recovery period. Like all surgical procedures, it carries certain risks, but for many patients, the benefits of resolving painful and potentially harmful kidney stones outweigh these risks.

If you have large kidney stones, consult with a urologist to discuss whether PCNL is the right treatment option for you.