Kidney Donation Surgery: What Happens

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on November 26, 2022
3 min read

You've decided to donate a kidney, gone through the screening and testing, and are gearing up for surgery. Or maybe you're still on the fence and want to know more about what this noble gesture might entail. Either way, it's smart to gain some insight beforehand. Here's what you should expect during surgery to donate a kidney.

Before your surgeon starts, they’ll give you a general anesthetic to put you under. You won't be conscious or feel any pain during the procedure. Kidney removal surgery can happen one of two ways: 

Open surgery. The surgeon makes a long, diagonal cut from just below your ribs on your back to a little below and near your belly button in the front. That gives them easy access to the organ and structures around it but leaves you with a 5- to 7-inch-long scar. You’ll probably stay in the hospital 3 to 4 days afterward.

Laparoscopic surgery. Most doctors use this minimally invasive approach. The surgeon makes 3 small cuts in your belly and uses cameras and small instruments to remove the kidney. You’ll probably be in the hospital for 2 to 3 days.


Most kidney donation operations take 3 to 4 hours.

After the procedure, you'll be moved from the operating room to a recovery room so that hospital staff can watch you and keep you comfortable. When you wake up from the anesthesia, you’ll notice a catheter in your bladder (so you won't need to go to the bathroom by yourself), and at least one IV line for fluids and medication. You may also need to wear compression stockings and take blood thinners so you don’t get dangerous blood clots.

Once you're totally awake, you can start to sip water. If you don’t feel sick to your stomach, you can move on to clear fluids before you start to eat normally again. This transition back to regular food usually takes about 1 to 2 days. You'll also have to wait 2 or 3 days before your catheter and IVs are removed. 

How much will it hurt? Everyone is different, but you could be in a lot of pain after the surgery. But it will get easier each day, and there are different types of pain relievers to make you feel better. Shortly after surgery, as your anesthesia wears off, you'll get pain medication through an IV into a vein. You might also have a patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) device that sends the drug at the touch of a button. Once you start to eat normally, you'll rely on pain meds taken by mouth.

Most kidney donors recover in the hospital for 2 to 5 days before they head home. You'll probably still have some discomfort for the next week or two, but you'll get a prescription for pain medication to keep you comfortable.

Full recovery takes time. You should expect to lay low for at least a month after you donate. You may need 6 to 8 weeks to fully heal. During this time you shouldn't lift anything heavier than about 10 pounds. You might not be able to drive or operate machinery if you're taking pain meds that make you drowsy.

As your cuts heal, they may feel itchy and tender, and you might end up with a scar.

Most kidney donors get back to their normal, healthy lives, though you should review your personal risks with your doctor. They may tell you to avoid contact sports so you’re not as likely to hurt your kidney. They may also want to keep watch for problems that are common among donors. These include high blood pressure, abnormal protein in your urine (a sign of kidney damage), and anxiety and depression. It’s important to see a doctor annually for a checkup.