Alpha-blockers as medical expulsive therapy for ureteral stones

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Apr 5;4(4):CD008509. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008509.pub3.


Background: Ureteral colic is a common reason for patients to seek medical care. Alpha-blockers are commonly used to improve stone passage through so-called medical expulsive therapy (MET), but their effectiveness remains controversial. This is an update of a 2014 Cochrane review; since that time, several large randomised controlled trials (RCTs) have been reported, making this update relevant.

Objectives: To assess effects of alpha-blockers compared with standard therapy for ureteral stones 1 cm or smaller confirmed by imaging in adult patients presenting with symptoms of ureteral stone disease.

Search methods: On 18 November 2017, we searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE Ovid, and Embase. We also searched and the WHO Portal/ICTRP to identify all published/unpublished and ongoing trials. We checked all references of included and review articles and conference proceedings for articles relevant to this review. We sent letters to investigators to request information about unpublished or incomplete studies.

Selection criteria: We included RCTs of ureteral stone passage in adult patients that compared alpha-blockers versus standard therapy.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors screened studies for inclusion and extracted data using standard methodological procedures. We performed meta-analysis using a random-effects model. Primary outcomes were stone clearance and major adverse events; secondary outcomes were stone expulsion time, number of pain episodes, use of diclofenac, hospitalisation, and surgical intervention. We assessed the quality of evidence on a per-outcome basis using the GRADE approach.

Main results: We included 67 studies with 10,509 participants overall. Of these, 15 studies with 5787 participants used a placebo.Stone clearance: Based on the overall analysis, treatment with an alpha-blocker may result in a large increase in stone clearance (risk ratio (RR) 1.45, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.36 to 1.55; low-quality evidence). A subset of higher-quality, placebo-controlled trials suggest that the likely effect is probably smaller (RR 1.16, 95% CI 1.07 to 1.25; moderate-quality evidence), corresponding to 116 more (95% CI 51 more to 182 more) stone clearances per 1000 participants.Major adverse events: Based on the overall analysis, treatment with an alpha-blocker may have little effect on major adverse events (RR 1.25, 95% CI 0.80 to 1.96; low-quality evidence). A subset of higher-quality, placebo-controlled trials suggest that alpha-blockers likely increase the risk of major adverse events slightly (RR 2.09, 95% CI 1.13 to 3.86), corresponding to 29 more (95% CI 3 more to 75 more) major adverse events per 1000 participants.Patients treated with alpha-blockers may experience shorter stone expulsion times (mean difference (MD) -3.40 days, 95% CI -4.17 to -2.63; low-quality evidence), may use less diclofenac (MD -82.41, 95% CI -122.51 to -42.31; low-quality evidence), and likely require fewer hospitalisations (RR 0.51, 95% CI 0.34 to 0.77; moderate-quality evidence), corresponding to 69 fewer hospitalisations (95% CI 93 fewer to 32 fewer) per 1000 participants. Meanwhile, the need for surgical intervention appears similar (RR 0.74, 95% CI 0.53 to 1.02; low-quality evidence), corresponding to 28 fewer surgical interventions (95% CI 51 fewer to 2 more) per 1000 participants.A predefined subgroup analysis (test for subgroup differences; P = 0.002) suggests that effects of alpha-blockers may vary with stone size, with RR of 1.06 (95% CI 0.98 to 1.15; P = 0.16; I² = 62%) for stones 5 mm or smaller versus 1.45 (95% CI 1.22 to 1.72; P < 0.0001; I² = 59%) for stones larger than 5 mm. We found no evidence suggesting possible subgroup effects based on stone location or alpha-blocker type.

Authors' conclusions: For patients with ureteral stones, alpha-blockers likely increase stone clearance but probably also slightly increase the risk of major adverse events. Subgroup analyses suggest that alpha-blockers may be less effective for smaller (5 mm or smaller) than for larger stones (greater than 5 mm).

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic alpha-Antagonists / adverse effects
  • Adrenergic alpha-Antagonists / therapeutic use*
  • Adult
  • Analgesics / therapeutic use
  • Diclofenac / therapeutic use
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Time Factors
  • Ureteral Calculi / diagnostic imaging
  • Ureteral Calculi / drug therapy*


  • Adrenergic alpha-Antagonists
  • Analgesics
  • Diclofenac