Kidney Stones: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide
Kidney stones is a prevalent urological disorder that occurs over the lifetime of 13% of men and 7% of women. Over the last several decades, incidents and prevalence of kidney stones are rising around the globe and across sex, race, and age. Such increases are thought to be driven by dietary change and global warming.
This article will help you learn more about this common disorder—what are kidney stones, and what are their symptoms and treatments.
What are Kidney Stones?
Kidney stones are literal stones that form inside the kidneys by minerals or acids. The stones then pass into the ureters—the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder. Usually, only one kidney is affected, and one or multiple stones can be present. When the stones move from your kidneys to your ureters, it is when you will start to feel symptoms of pain, nausea, etc.
Often times, you don’t need to do anything to pass the kidney stones other than drinking plenty of water and taking pain medications. However, if the stones become stuck in the urinary tract, they may cause infections and would require surgical removal.
Kidney stones usually do not cause kidney failure unless there is only one functioning kidney or there are other underlying conditions.
There are four kinds of kidney stones:
- Calcium stones: the most common kind of kidney stones; made up of calcium oxalate or calcium phosphate
- Struvite stones: form as a response to infections
- Uric acid stones: forms in people who don’t hydrate enough or have a diet rich in protein.
- Cystine stones: the rarest form of kidney stones found in people with a hereditary disorder that causes the overproduction of cystinuria.
Signs and symptoms
Some kidney stones are small enough that it’ll pass out of your urinary tract without you noticing. However, other times the stones can cause:
- Pain below the ribs in the side, back, lower abdomen and groin
- Painful urination
- Bloody, cloudy, or foul-smelling urine
- Nausea and vomiting
- Frequent urination with low output volume
- Fever and chills (signs of infection)
Symptoms can vary based on the location of the stones:
- Stones blocking the ureter as it enters the lower pelvis results in mild to severe flank pain, throbbing pain over the bladder, and bowel pain.
- Stones in the ureter can produce a sudden, severe, sharp pain in the flank and lower abdomen with shooting pain to the testicles or vulva. Nausea is fairly common when the kidney stone is in the ureter.
- Upper ureteral stones lead to pain more concentrated towards the flank and lower back.
- Mid ureteral stones lead to pain around the abdomen.
- Lower ureteral stones send pain impulses to the groin or testicle (men) or labia majora (women).
- Stones that pass to the bladder may cause no symptoms but can possibly result in urinary retention.
Kidney stones treatment
If you are in severe pain, have nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, difficulty passing urine or bloody urine, you should seek medical help from your doctor.
When the kidney stones are small, they can pass on their own with sufficient hydration, and pain can be managed with medication. A doctor may also prescribe you with an alpha blocker to relax the ureters and help the stones pass easier.
Other treatments include:
- Extracorporeal Shockwave Lithotripsy (ESWL): non-invasive treatment where doctors use powerful soundwaves to break up the kidney stones.
- Percutaneous Nephrolithotomy: surgical removal of the stone/stones through a small incision in the back.
- Ureteroscopy (URS): used when the stone is lodged in the ureter. A small ureteroscope is passed through the bladder and into the ureter to remove the stone.
- Parathyroid Surgery: if kidney stones are caused by overactive parathyroid glands, the glands are operated on and returned to normal functions.
- Urinary catheters: sometimes, a kidney stone may not be successfully expelled after it migrates to the bladder, thus it can turn into a bladder stone, which may cause urinary retention. When there are symptoms of urinary retention, catheters can relieve the pressure in your bladder.
Please note that catheters are prescribed medical devices and should only be obtained as your doctor deems needed.
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Kidney Stone Pain Relief
Pain relief can be provided in the form of acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and meperidine. In addition, prescriptions of opioid narcotics might become necessary short-term. Some oral narcotics such as codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, usually in combination with acetaminophen and drugs for nausea may be prescribed. Heating pads may also provide some comfort.
Pain levels and needs vary per person, so consult your medical professional before purchasing or using any medication.
How to Prevent Stones
Of course, no one wants to have kidney stones. So, it is very important that if you just got over passing kidney stones, you take preventative measures to ensure you have a very low risk of getting them in the future. That means limiting protein from meats, salt, taking medicines that slow down or entirely prevent stone formation and drinking plenty of fluids (water).
Patients with high urine calcium levels and recurrent calcium stones may benefit from thiazide diuretics (drugs and/ or medicines that make you urinate more). This allows the kidneys to flush out clusters of calcium, preventing the creation of those bigger stones.
Another widely recommended medicine is potassium citrate, another chemical compound that de-acidifies your urine and prevents kidney stones. Potassium citrate can also be used with thiazides or by itself. However, please consult your physician or medical specialist, as they will prescribe the right medicine for you.
Your diet can affect your risk of getting kidney stones. To decrease your risk, follow the tips below:
- Avoid calcium supplements, but you can eat calcium-rich foods as usual
- Ease up on sodium intake, avoid eating too much:
- Processed foods, like chips and crackers
- Canned soup
- Canned vegetables
- Avoid Oxalate-rich foods, such as:
- Sweet Potatoes
- reduce meat consumption such as
The above recommendations are not formal medical advice, please consult a medical professional when it comes to treating, diagnosing, or preventing kidney stones.
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