CareNow® - November 09, 2021

One in every 11 people in the U.S. will get a kidney stone at some point in their life, with men more susceptible to them than women. Those who are overweight or suffer from diabetes are also more prone to kidney stones.

So what are kidney stones and how do you know if you have one? The painful stones are made up of a hard collection of salt and minerals that form inside the kidneys. They can also be referred to as renal calculi, nephrolithiasis or urolithiasis.

Kidney stones can vary in size, with some no larger than a grain of sand and others several inches across. In fact, it’s possible to get a kidney stone that’s large enough it takes up the entire kidney.

Identifying that you have a kidney stone in the first place is key to recovering quickly. Here’s what you need to look out for if you feel that you might have a kidney stone.

Symptoms of Kidney Stones

You’ll likely know something’s wrong very quickly if you have a kidney stone as they are normally painful. You won’t feel anything until the stone has moved around within your kidney or passed into your ureters (the tubes that connect your kidneys to your bladder).

If the stone lodges itself into a ureter, the flow of your urine may become blocked, causing the kidney to swell and the ureter to spasm. If this happens, you will typically experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Back, belly or side pain
  • Severe discomfort when urinating
  • Abnormal urgency to urinate
  • Blood in your urine
  • A distinct smell or cloudiness within your urine
  • Inability to urinate more than a small amount at a time
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever and chills

What Causes Kidney Stones?

Although kidney stones have no single cause, several things can heighten your risk of getting one. These risk factors include:

  • Family history: If someone in your family has had kidney stones before, you are at a greater risk of developing them as well. This is also the case if you’ve had kidney stones in the past.
  • Dehydration: This is especially important if you live in a climate that is typically warm and dry or you sweat more than most people. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water[1]  each day to minimize your risk.
  • Digestive diseases: If you’ve ever undergone gastric bypass surgery or you suffer from chronic diarrhea or inflammatory bowel disease, you may not be able to absorb calcium and water like you should, causing the substances that create kidney stones to increase in your urine.
  • Obesity: Maintaining a healthy weight is an important step in preventing kidney stones as high body mass index and weight gain are linked to an increased risk of developing stones.
  • Diet: The typical Western diet today is very high in protein, salt and sugar, all of which put you at a higher risk of getting kidney stones. When possible, try to limit the amount of salt and sugar you consume and opt for plenty of fruits and vegetables in your diet.

It’s important to note that there are multiple types of kidney stones, and knowing what type you have is a good way to find its cause. If you pass a kidney stone, it’s a good idea to save it so your doctor can analyze and help you determine the cause.

The types of kidney stones include:

  • Calcium stones: This is the most common type of kidney stone and is often caused by oxalate — a substance your liver makes each day that can also be absorbed from your diet. Fruits, vegetables, nuts and chocolate are all high in oxalate.
  • Struvite stones: These often form after a urinary tract infection has occurred. They can grow very quickly (without warning) and are often large.
  • Uric acid stones: These stones are most common among people who lose too much fluid, typically from chronic diarrhea or malabsorption, and people who eat too much protein.
  • Cystine stones: These stones are rare and occur in people who have a hereditary disorder known as cystinuria, where they excrete too much of a specific amino acid.

How Are Kidney Stones Diagnosed?

There are several ways to determine if you are suffering from a kidney stone. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may order a blood test or urine test to provide a proper diagnosis.

A blood test will help your doctor see if there is too much calcium or uric acid in your blood, while a urine test can reveal whether or not you’re excreting too many of the minerals that form kidney stones.

In some instances, image testing may be the best way to diagnose kidney stones; however, they are used less frequently since they can have difficulty recognizing very small kidney stones.

Treatment of Kidney Stones

Your treatment plan will depend on the type of stone you have and what the doctor believes caused it. Treatment can vary from simply taking pain relievers to surgery.

If you have a small stone and minimal symptoms

If you have a small stone and your symptoms are fairly minimal, you will not need invasive treatment and can usually pass the stone by yourself.

A doctor will most likely recommend that you increase your water intake to two to three quarts per day to keep your urine diluted and to prevent kidney stones from forming. Pain relievers are also often used to help alleviate the pain of passing a kidney stone.

If you have a large stone and many symptoms

If you have a larger stone that is causing bleeding, kidney damage or a urinary tract infection that is ongoing, you may need more extensive treatment.

A procedure called lithotripsy is often used to break up the stones into tiny pieces that you can pass by using strong vibrations (or shock waves). This procedure usually lasts around 45 minutes and can be fairly painful, often requiring sedation or light anesthesia to help with the discomfort.

In other cases, a small scope can be used to break the stone into tiny pieces. During this procedure, a thin lighted tube with a camera included may be passed through the urethra and bladder to the ureter to help locate the stone. Typically, this procedure requires general or local anesthesia.

In cases where the stone is very large, surgery may be needed. For the surgery, a small incision is made in your back and the kidney stone is surgically removed using small telescopes and instruments.

How to Prevent Kidney Stones

While there is no way to completely prevent kidney stones from happening, there are several things you can do to minimize your risk of developing one.

  • Stay hydrated: The recommendation is that you drink enough fluids that you’re able to pass 2 liters of urine every day. Your doctor may recommend that you measure your output so that you can ensure you’re drinking enough.
  • Minimize your intake of oxalate-rich foods: If you’re prone to calcium oxalate stones, you should restrict your intake of foods like beets, okra, spinach, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, rhubarb, nuts, tea, black pepper, chocolate and soy products.
  • Eat less salt and animal protein: Opt for non-animal protein sources when possible and try to keep your sodium intake to a minimum. A great salt alternative to consider using is Mrs. Dash.
  • Be careful using calcium supplements: Although food that is rich in calcium has no impact on your risk of kidney stones, calcium supplements might. Talk to your doctor before you begin taking these or any other supplements, especially if you’re at a higher risk of developing stones.

If you believe you or someone in your family is suffering from a kidney stone, visit your local CareNow® location to receive a proper diagnosis and begin your treatment plan immediately.

We have more than 150 locations throughout the U.S. and are open after hours and on the weekend when you need care most.

Don’t forget to check out our Web Check-In® before your visit to save time in the waiting room.

Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.

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