Passing a kidney stone is a painful experience many have likened to childbirth. Although it is possible to have a kidney stone and not experience any symptoms, it is rare.
After a stone has formed, it may stay in the kidney or travel down the urinary tract into the ureter. A small stone may pass easily with little or no discomfort. When a larger stone is moving, most people will experience extremely sharp pain in their back, abdomen, side and/or groin. There may also be the presence of bright red blood in the urine or an inability to urinate if the stone is blocking the urine.
What is a kidney stone?
According to the National Institute of Health, a kidney stone is a pebble-like piece of material that can form in your kidneys when high levels of certain minerals are found in your urine. They rarely cause permanent damage if they are treated correctly in a timely manner. Some stones form and never move from the kidney, while others eventually leave the kidney, traveling out of the body by way of the ureter. Stones that don’t move may cause a backup of urine in the kidney, ureter, bladder or urethra, which can lead to other complications.
What causes kidney stones?
There are some risk factors that seem to increase a person’s risk of developing kidney stones such as having a family history; dehydration; a diet high in protein, sodium and sugar; obesity; and certain medical conditions, especially digestive diseases and surgery on the digestive tract or bowel.
Some people go their entire lives and never experience a kidney stone. If you are prone to them, however, there are some things you can do to prevent or lessen their occurrence. If you develop a stone and it is moving, drink lots of water — unless your doctor tells you otherwise. This may help to pass the stone more swiftly and without as much discomfort.
Some people are able to prevent recurrence of kidney stones by changing their diet related to how much sodium, animal protein and oxalate (salt or ester that combines with calcium to form an insoluble salt) they consume. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a person on a low oxalate diet to prevent kidney stones is instructed to severely limit his or her intake of:
- Bran flakes and shredded wheat
- Skin of baked potato
- Potato chips
- French fries
- Nuts and nut butters
Many other foods contain oxalate but not in amounts high enough to cause a problem for most people. Foods with more than 45 mg/serving of oxalate are the foods to avoid. A usual diet consists of anywhere from 200 to 300 mg of oxalate a day. If you are trying to eat to prevent kidney stones, aim to keep that number below 100 mg.
Eating a low calcium diet can actually raise urine oxalate. Sometimes the kidney stone dilemma can be as simple as increasing your intake of calcium. Those who form calcium stones need to take in at least 1000 mg of calcium a day to protect their bones because the hypercalciuria in those who form kidney stones put their bones at high risk when their diet is otherwise low in calcium.
If you are prone to kidney stones, you need to:
- Limit salt intake
- Increase calcium intake
- Decrease oxalate intake
If you think you have developed a kidney stone, see a doctor if you experience:
Treatment for kidney stones
- Pain so intense you can’t sit still
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain accompanied by a temperature and chilling
- Visible blood in your urine
- Knowledge that a stone is there but you can’t pass it
If you do have to deal with a painful kidney stone the usual treatment includes:
- Narcotic pain medicine
- Increasing fluids whether by mouth or IV
- Medicine to help relax the muscles in your ureter (alpha blocker) so the stone can pass more easily
- Straining urine to catch the trapped stone when it comes through to analyze it to identify the type of stone
If the stone still doesn’t pass on its own even with conservative medical intervention it may be necessary to take more aggressive measures including:
- Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy, which uses sound waves to break up the stones into pieces small enough to pass easily in your urine.
- Using a scope to remove small stones in the ureter or kidney. This can be done under local or general anesthesia.
- Surgery to remove very large stones (a procedure called percutaneous nephrolithotomy) using small telescopes and instruments inserted through a small incision in the back. This requires general anesthesia and an overnight stay in the hospital.
If you think you might have a kidney stone, see your healthcare provider