Did you know that each year, more than half a million people visit emergency rooms for kidney stone problems?1 If you fall into this group, then you probably know how painful a kidney stone can be. If you don’t, there’s still a good chance that you know someone who has experienced a kidney stone. It’s now estimated that one in 10 people will have a kidney stone at some point in their lives.1 Even though kidney stones are common, there are still a lot of questions worth asking, such as: what are they, how do you get kidney stones, and what are the signs of kidney stones?
What are kidney stones?
A kidney stone is a hard object that is made from chemicals in the urine.1 Your kidneys are responsible for removing waste and fluid from your body, and when you have too much waste and not enough fluid, kidney stones have the potential to form.2 For the amount of pain they cause, kidney stones are relatively small. While their size and makeup can vary, they can range from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a pebble.
What causes kidney stones?
Kidney stones can be caused by a variety of factors including diet, fluid consumption, and genetics. There are four main types of kidney stones:
- Calcium oxalate. The most common type of kidney stones, calcium oxalate form when calcium, oxalate, cystine or phosphate levels are high and there is little liquid in your system. Risk factors such as dehydration, a diet high in protein or sodium, obesity, and digestive diseases play a role in individuals more likely to get calcium oxalate kidney stones.3
- Uric acid. These are the second most common type of kidney stones and are typically caused by diet and hereditary factors. Uric acid stones form due to high levels of uric acid in urine. Uric acid can result from a diet high in purines, which are found in foods such as beef, poultry, pork, and fish.4
- Struvite. Less common than the previous two types of stones, Struvite is caused by infections in the upper urinary tract.
- Cystine. The final type of kidney stone is caused by a rare disorder caused “cystinuria”. People with cystine stones tend to have recurring stones, which may lead to a lifetime of managing stones.5
Signs of kidney stones
If you’ve experienced kidney stones, or know someone who has, you probably know that one of the first signs of kidney stones is pain. People notice severe pain on either side of their lower back (where the kidneys are located). The pain typically begins when the kidney stone is causing irritation by moving or causing a blockage. Other signs of kidney stones can include1:
- Blood in the urine
- Nausea or vomiting
- Fever and chills
- Urine that smells bad or looks cloudy
How to diagnose kidney stones
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, it’s important to get a formal diagnosis from a healthcare provider. The first step is determining if you have kidney stones. Diagnosing kidney stones can be determined from an X-Ray, ultrasound or a computed tomography (CT) scan. Based on those results and understanding if you have a stone and the size of it, your healthcare provider may order blood and urine tests. Blood tests will look at the levels of minerals and kidney function. Urine tests will show if your urine has blood or other minerals related to kidney stones. From there, whether you pass the stone, or have it surgically removed, further testing can be done to determine what type of kidney stone you had.6
How to treat kidney stones
Depending on the type of kidney stone, and the size, treatment can follow a few paths:1
- Since kidney stones can be caused from dehydration, the first step is to increase fluid intake.
- Healthcare providers are able to prescribe medication that makes urine less acidic.
- Providers try to get a kidney stone to pass naturally first, but sometimes that treatment option isn’t possible. If a stone is too large to pass, is causing infection, or causing a long-term blockage, the stone may need to be removed. Removal can include using a laser to blast the stone into smaller, easier to pass, pieces or with a scope that travels through the urethra and bladder to extract the stone.
The good news is that kidney stones are generally easy to treat. With the right plan with your healthcare provider, you can find a treatment plan that works and helps you feel pain-free.