With one in ten people estimated to develop them at some point in their lifetime, kidney stones have become one of the most prevalent illnesses in the United States.
Similar to a real stone, kidney stones are hard, round deposits formed in your kidneys. However, unlike a real stone, they are actually made up of chemicals from your urine that bind together and form crystals. There is no single cause but there are a variety of a factors that increase your risk of developing kidney stones, such as a family history of developing them; dehydration; high protein, sodium, and sugar intake; obesity; and certain digestive disorders that can change your body’s ability to absorb minerals and water properly.
Additionally, there are different types of kidney stones, and knowing which type you have can help identify the cause and perhaps help with future prevention. There are:
Due to the size and formation of a kidney stone you may not even realize you have one until it begins to move from your kidney to your ureter, the tube that connects the kidneys to your bladder. Once a stone begins to move you may experience a number of symptoms such as back pain, pain below your ribs or pain while urinating. You may also be nauseous and vomit or develop a high fever. If you develop any of these symptoms or notice blood in your urine, you should schedule an appointment with your primary care provider so he or she can examine you.
Even if you have the symptoms mentioned above, it can still be difficult for a clinician to detect a kidney stone due to its size. Your clinician may order a blood test to see if you have too much calcium or uric acid in your blood, hinting at a kidney stone. He or she may request a urine test which can show if you have unusually high amounts of stone-forming minerals or low levels of the chemicals which can prevent stone formation. If a clinician is not able to reach a conclusive answer from those tests, there are a number of imaging tests that can be considered to determine if you have a kidney stone.
If you are diagnosed with kidney stones, don’t worry! They are very treatable. Depending on the type of stone you have and its size, sometimes all it takes is to drink about 2-3 quarts (64-96 ounces) of water to help the stone pass naturally. You may also be prescribed pain relievers to help with the discomfort while waiting for the stone to pass, or medications that relax the ureter and make passage easier.
If a stone is larger and may be difficult or damaging to pass, more extensive treatment may be required. The most common treatments for larger stones are extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL), a noninvasive procedure that creates strong shock waves to break the stone into tiny pieces to help it pass, or a procedure where a ureteroscope (a thin tube with a light and a small camera) is inserted into your ureter through your urethra and bladder and removes the stones.
If you’ve had one kidney stone, you’re at increased risk for having another stone; therefore, treatment involves not only addressing the immediate problem but also learning how to prevent future kidney stones. Proper hydration, a high calcium- and fiber-rich diet, low salt and protein intake, and managing your weight can all contribute to avoiding another kidney stone.