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Is That Pain a Kidney Stone?

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Learn what causes stones and how you can prevent them

Posted by Jack H. Mydlo, MD, MBA, FACS

As a urologist at Temple, I see a lot of patients with kidney stones. While they are a common condition, kidney stones can cause a lot of discomfort and sometimes require a specialist’s treatment.

The good news is that if you understand the causes of kidney stones, it can be easier to avoid them in the future. In this blog, I will answer the seven most frequently asked questions I get about kidney stones, including the different types, who is at risk for them, and the steps you can take to reduce the chances of developing kidney stones.

1. What are kidney stones?

Our kidneys are our body’s natural “filter,” cleaning waste from our blood and removing it through our urine. Urine contains a variety of dissolved minerals and salts. If those minerals and salts build up in urine, they can separate from the urine, crystallize, attract other wastes and chemicals, and form a stone.

Kidney stones can be smooth or rough, and they can vary in size. Sometimes they are as small as a grain of sand, and sometimes they are as big as a golf ball.

In many cases, we may never even notice small kidney stones, which pass out of our body when we urinate. However, larger stones can get stuck in the urinary tract. When I see patients with kidney stones, it is usually because they are experiencing pain or bleeding caused by a stone that is stuck.

2. Are there different kinds of kidney stones?

There are several different types of kidney stones. Each is caused by different things:

  • Calcium stones are the most common form of kidney stone. They are caused by buildups of calcium oxalate or calcium phosphate. Even though the names of these stones make it seem like calcium-rich foods would play a role in their formation, that’s not entirely true.
  • Uric acid stones can occur when there is too much acid in your urine, which may happen if you eat too much fish or meat, especially organ meat, like liver.
  • Struvite stones, which can develop after a urinary tract infection (UTI) and become relatively large.
  • Cystine stones, which are the result of a genetic condition called cystinuria.

3. Who is most at risk of kidney stones?

Kidney stones are more common in men, affecting around 11% of all men and 6% of women in the U.S. People with family members who are prone to kidney stones are also more likely to develop them. Not drinking enough water or eating too much protein, sodium, or sugar can also increase a person’s risk for kidney stones.

Some of my patients have other conditions that make them more likely to develop kidney stones. These include:

  • Urinary tract blockages or UTIs
  • A history of digestive problems, like inflammatory bowel disease, or gastrointestinal surgery
  • Cystic kidney diseases
  • Renal tubular acidosis, a disease that causes a buildup of uric acid in the urine
  • Hypercalciuria or hyperoxaluria, genetic conditions that cause buildups of certain minerals in the urine
  • Hyperparathyroidism (an overactive parathyroid gland)
  • Taking certain medicines, including diuretics and calcium-based antacids

4. What are the symptoms of kidney stones?

Most of my patients with kidney stones experience pain while urinating or have blood in their urine. However, there are other symptoms that can be related to kidney stones, including:

  • Feeling pain in your groin, back, or side
  • Frequently feeling like you need to urinate
  • Not being able to urinate much — or at all — when you do try to go
  • Having urine that is cloudy in color or smells bad
  • Feeling sick to your stomach, running a fever, or vomiting

5. How can I prevent kidney stones?

In most cases, I tell patients that the best way to reduce their chances of kidney stones is to drink plenty of water. Aim to consume around six to eight glasses of water, or around 64 ounces, every day. Why? Because drinking water helps your kidneys better process the body’s waste. There is also some evidence that citrus drinks, like lemonade or orange juice, can help prevent stones. Plain water is best to hydrate and prevent stones compared to other drinks that have sugar and/or caffeine which act as a diuretic and can actually dehydrate you.

Changes to your diet are another key preventive step. The type of kidney stone you have can help guide these dietary changes. For instance, my patients who develop calcium oxalate stones may need to eat less meat, nuts, or sodium. For my patients who develop uric acid stones, it is helpful for them to reduce their seafood intake.

Lastly, I sometimes prescribe medications that help lower the levels of certain minerals or waste products in a patient’s urine.

When you see your urologist, ask them about the type of kidney stones you have and any changes you can make to reduce the likelihood of developing stones again in the future.

6. When can kidney stones be treated at home?

Some kidney stones can be treated easily at home. Small stones often require no treatment and will pass out of the urinary tract on their own. Depending on the size and type of kidney stone you have, your doctor may also suggest a simple course of pain relief medication and water. This can help the stone move out of your body.

7. When should I see a urologist?

There are times when a kidney stone is more serious and requires a urologist’s attention. I always recommend that people see a urologist if they notice blood in their urine or if the pain they are experiencing from a possible kidney stone is no longer bearable. Another reason to see your doctor includes experiencing any symptoms of an infection, like a fever, or if you have not passed the stone in four to six weeks.

In these cases, your urologist may recommend one of the following treatment options:

  • A medication like tamsulosin, which relaxes the ureter and helps the stone move out of your body.
  • Shock wave lithotripsy, a procedure that uses x-rays or ultrasound imaging to locate the stone and then sends shock waves to break it into smaller pieces.
  • A ureteroscopy, a procedure in which a ureteroscope is inserted into the bladder and kidney in order to find and remove a stone.
  • A surgery such as percutaneous nephrolithotomy to remove the stone from the body.

Get the help you need

The urologists at Temple Health are experts at diagnosing and treating a variety of conditions that affect the urinary tract, like kidney stones. They help thousands of patients a year feel better and move on with their lives. To make an appointment with a Temple urologist, call 800-TEMPLE-MED or schedule online.

Jack H. Mydlo, MD, MBA, FACS

Dr. Mydlo is the Chair of the Urology Department at Temple University Hospital and a Fox Chase-Temple Urologic Institute Provider. He is a board-certified urologist and Philadelphia magazine Top Doctor.

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