How to Manage Pain in Patients with Renal Insufficiency or End-Stage Renal Disease on Dialysis

When Pain is a Kidney Problem

Key Points

  • Safe, nonopioid options for pain management in renally impaired and dialysis patients include acetaminophen and certain NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen.
  • Fentanyl, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone are the safest opioids to use in renally impaired and dialysis patients.
  • Tramadol in lower doses may also be safely used in renally impaired and dialysis patients.
  • Low-dose gabapentin and lidocaine patches can be safely used as adjunctive therapy in renally impaired and dialysis patients; TCAs may also be used in lower doses in renally impaired patients.


A 70-year-old male with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) on hemodialysis presents with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteremia and ankle pain after a fall. An MRI of his ankle is negative, and he is started on acetaminophen and lidocaine patches, which result in adequate pain relief of the ankle. He later develops significant neuropathic pain in both arms, and a CT scan of the cervical spine reveals a cervical abscess and osteomyelitis. The patient desires pain relief but adamantly refuses narcotics, stating: “I don’t want to get addicted.” How can his pain be managed?


Pain is a common problem in patients with renal insufficiency and ESRD, and can have a significant effect on the patient’s quality of life.1 When assessing a patient’s pain, assess both the severity of the pain (such as on an analogue scale, 0–10) and the characteristics of the pain. Pain is most commonly characterized as nociceptive, neuropathic, or both. Nociceptive pain can be further classified as arising from either somatic or visceral sources, and is often described as dull, throbbing, cramping, and/or pressurelike.1 Neuropathic pain is often described as tingling, numbing, burning, and/or stabbing.

It is a challenge to manage pain in patients with renal insufficiency and dialysis. Renal insufficiency affects the pharmacokinetic properties of most pain medications, including their distribution, clearance, and excretion. The magnitude of the effect of renal insufficiency on drug metabolism varies depending on the agent itself, its metabolite, and the extent of renal failure.3 Multiple factors should be considered when prescribing pain medications for patients on dialysis, including the properties of the parent drug and its metabolites; the physical properties of the dialysis equipment, such as the filter pore size, the flow rate, and the efficiency of the technique used; and the dialysis method (intermittent versus continuous).3 Table 1 provides the recommended dosing of the most commonly prescribed agents, based on the degree of renal impairment. A modified World Health Organization (WHO) ladder has been suggested to treat pain in patients with ESRD, which can lead to effective pain relief in as many as 96% of patients (see Figure 1).2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *