Prevent the Pain of Passing a Kidney Stone
By Mark L. Fallick, MD, MBA, FACS—Virtua Urologist
Those who have passed a kidney stone—including women who have given birth—call it the most pain they have ever experienced. With the incidence of kidney stones rising in the United States, it’s important to understand what causes them, and how to treat and prevent them.
How kidney stones form
The kidneys are the body’s filtration system. They process mineral waste from the blood and eliminate it from the body in urine. The minerals form crystals in urine, and if there are too many crystals and not enough fluid, they can clump together and form a kidney stone.
In the United States, the incidence of kidney stones is greater than 10 percent and rising. This is due in large part to the American diet, which is high in salt and animal protein. Kidney stone formation also is attributed to the following:
- Inadequate fluid intake
- Oxalate-rich diets that include foods such as spinach, greens, nuts, tea and rhubarb
- Changes in global climates
- Low calcium intake
Some people also have a genetic predisposition to kidney stone formation. And, once you’ve had a stone, you'll likely develop more unless you make diet and lifestyle changes.
Men age 30 to 50 are 3 to 4 times more likely than women to have kidney stones. And, Caucasians are more likely to develop stones than African-Americans or Asians of the same age. That said, kidney stones can occur in anyone regardless of age or gender.
How you "pass" a kidney stone
Kidney stones alone are pretty harmless. But, when stones get too large, they can get stuck in the ureter, which is the long narrow tube that connects the kidneys to the bladder. When a blockage occurs, it prevents urine from flowing between the kidneys and the bladder, and this causes severe pain. You also may feel other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, chills and blood in the urine.
Some people can pass the stone by drinking lots of water and using medication to control pain until the stone passes. The doctor also may recommend a medication that aids in stone passage.
Diagnosis and treatment for persistent stones
Fewer than half of the people diagnosed with kidney stones will suffer the pain of a kidney stone attack. But, when kidney stones do cause pain, they’re often misdiagnosed as other health issues such as appendicitis or lower back pain.
If you have persistent pain, you should go to the emergency room for an accurate diagnosis. Kidney stones usually are diagnosed through x-ray, ultrasound, or a CT scan.
Rapid treatment is vital, as it’s impossible to get comfortable when a stone obstructs the urinary tract. And, if the blockage continues for an extended period, you risk loss of kidney function.
If you don't pass the stone in 3 to 6 weeks, urologists recommend more aggressive treatment. This can include non-invasive surgery such as shockwave lithotripsy therapy, which uses focused sound waves to break up the kidney stones inside the body. In addition, a urologist can insert a scope into the urinary tract and use laser or ultrasonic lithotripsy to break up and remove the stones.
Updated April 10, 2018