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What is Retroperitoneal?

By Vanessa Harvey
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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"Retro" is a prefix referring to the state of being prior to, located behind or in back of something. "Peritoneal" is a term referring or relating to a structure in the abdomen known as the peritoneum. "Retroperitoneal," therefore, is a term meaning behind, in back of or posterior to the peritoneum, which is a membrane that serves as a lining for the anatomical space in the abdominal cavity.

The retroperitoneal space technically is outside of the peritoneum, between the abdomen and the back. It sometimes is referred to as the retroperitoneum or extraperitoneum because of its location. This space is not specifically delineated by any abdominal structure, rather organs are said to be in the retroperitoneum if they are lined by peritoneum only on their anterior side.

The peritoneum that lines the abdominal cavity is known more specifically as the parietal peritoneum, and the lining of the actual organs located in the abdominal cavity is referred to as the visceral peritoneum. Retroperitoneal organs and structures include the right and left kidney, the pancreas and the aorta, which is the largest artery in the body. There are other organs and structures within this space as well. They include the bladder and adrenal glands; the inferior vena cava, which is the largest vein in the body; and part of the esophagus, the structure leading to the stomach.

When there is injury to any of the organs within the retroperitoneal space, pain and various sensations almost always will be felt in the patient's back. For example, in the case of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, a person often will complain of a tearing sensation in his or her back. An aneurysm is the dilation or ballooning of a section of the wall of an artery that has been weakened by disease or injury. Kidney stones, infection or kidney disease also could cause pain and strange sensations in the back, because the kidneys are located within the retroperitoneal space. Another serious medical condition that can occur in this space is known as a retroperitoneal pregnancy, which means that the baby is developing outside of the uterus.

Study of the retroperitoneal space usually is limited to books and courses used and taken by students of medicine or paramedicine. These people must take intensive courses in anatomy and physiology because of their legal permission to administer drugs. This knowledge also is needed to fulfill their responsibility to do patient assessments. Unique health problems affecting the retroperitoneum include hemorrhage or bleeding, lymph node dissection and fibrosis.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By croydon — On Oct 16, 2011

@KoiwiGal - To some extent I agree with you, but I can also see it from the other side. There are people on the pro-life side who honestly feel that the fetus is a human life and shouldn't be removed because that would be killing that life.

Those people generally would agree with you, I think, that in some cases an abortion is warranted.

Then, there are people who think that any abortion is a crime against God, because he was the one who decided to put a child there and there are various biblical quotes to back up their cause.

They don't care about the lives so much as the spiritual well being of mother and child, and in their minds, any abortion will stop their entrance to heaven.

Then there are crazy people who just like to see things in black and white.

It's a complex issue. While your point is one I agree with, I'm not entirely sure abortion should be freely available in all cases.

By KoiwiGal — On Oct 15, 2011

A retroperitoneal pregnancy is one of those cases where it would seem that "abortion" is the only option. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is so clear cut it wouldn't even need discussion, as the fetus is not going to survive, and allowing it to develop at all can harm or even kill the mother.

But, in some cases people have advocated banning all forms of abortion including ones that would deal with this kind of situation.

I mean if you are talking about saving lives, in this case it's a matter of mathematics. If the abortion is performed, one life is saved. If it isn't, no lives are saved.

By indigomoth — On Oct 15, 2011

It's amazing how difficult it is to tell whether you are suffering from back pain, or pain in the retroperitoneal organs, like the kidneys.

I have a sister who has difficulties with her kidneys, including occasional infections and she says sometimes it's hard to tell whether she's just had a long day and has an ache in her back, or whether she has an infection.

Of course, there are other symptoms to look out for in her case, but if you are suffering from what seems like a sore back, you might want to consider that it might not be your spine that is in discomfort.

At any rate, if the pain continues you should see a doctor, regardless of whether it is actually your spine, or something else entirely.

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