Kidney stones are made of salts and minerals in the urine that stick together to form small “pebbles.” They can be as small as grains of sand or as large as golf balls. They may stay in your kidneys or travel out of your body through the urinary tract. The urinary tract is the system that makes urine and carries it out of your body. It is made up of the kidneys, the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder (the ureters), the bladder, and the tube that leads from the bladder out of the body (the urethra).
Kidney stones form when a change occurs in the normal balance of your body and urine.
Kidney stones form in the kidney. When kidney stones travel out of your kidney to the urinary tract, their movement may cause the following:
- No symptoms if the stone is small enough.
- Sudden and severe pain that comes in waves. The pain may be in your back, side, abdomen, groin or even genitals.
- Feeling nauseous or vomiting.
- Blood in your urine.
- Frequent and painful urination.
Please note that some of these symptoms are also tied to appendicitis, hernias, ectopic pregnancy and prostatitis (an infection of the prostate). If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, please see or call your healthcare professional.
Kidney stones may form when the normal balance of minerals and water in your urine changes. Most kidney stones are caused by the calcium changes in your urine.
Some things that could change the balance of your urine are:
- Not drinking enough water because salts and minerals can stick together to form a stone. This is the most common cause of kidney stones.
- Some medical conditions (gout and IBS) can cause kidney stones as they affect the normal balance of your body.
Kidney stones are also genetic, so it’s important to know your family history. Lastly in some rare cases, kidney stones can form if your parathyroid glands are producing too much of a hormone as it leads to higher calcium levels.
There are several risk factors that contribute to kidney stones, some that you can control and others that you cannot.
Risk factors you can control:
- How much fluid specifically water you drink
- Your diet – Diets that are high in protein or sodium can increase your risk.
- Being overweight
- Some medications can cause kidney stones to form
Risk factors you cannot control:
- Age and gender
- Men between the ages of 30-50 are more likely to develop them
- Postmenopausal women with low estrogen levels
- A family history of kidney stones
- A personal history of frequent urinary tract infections
- Other diseases or conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, hyperparathyroidism or gout
- Intestinal surgery or gastric bypass
- Insulin resistance
Tests and diagnosis
Your first diagnosis of a kidney stone generally happens at the doctor or the emergency room. The physician will ask you questions and examine you. After you pass a stone, your doctor may give you another exam to determine if you are at risk to develop kidney stones again.
One or more of the following tests are used to diagnose kidney stones:
- A non-contrast spiral computed tomography (CT) scan is the preferred test for kidney stones. It is a special type of CT scan that moves in a circle.
- An intravenous pyelogram (IVP) is an X-ray test that shows pictures of the urinary tract including any kidney stones.
- A retrograde pyelogram may be done if the IVP or CT scan does not provide a diagnosis.
- Urinalysis and urine cultures test your urine.
- An abdominal X-ray (KUB) gives a picture of the kidneys, the bladder, and the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder (ureters).
- An ultrasound exam of the kidneys (ultrasonogram) is the preferred test for pregnant women.
Finding out the type of kidney stone you have will not only help with treatment decisions but will allow you to take certain measures to prevent stones from forming again.
Treatment and drugs
There are many different treatments for kidney stones. Home treatment includes drinking fluids and taking OTC pain medications. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to help your body pass the stone, like an alpha-blocker.
You may need one of these treatments if your pain is extreme, your stone is blocking the urinary tract or you have an infection. These options include:
- Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy: These machines use shock waves that pass easily through the body but are strong enough to break up a kidney stone.
- Ureteroscopy: The surgeon passes a thin viewing tool up the urinary tract to the stone’s location. A tool is then used to remove the stone or to break it up.
Surgery is rarely needed to treat kidney stones but is an option. This is only used when the kidney stone is very large, blocking the flow of urine or causing other problems.
After you’ve had a kidney stone, you’re more likely to develop them again. Here are steps to take to prevent them:
- Drink more fluids, especially water.
- Change your diet.
If you still develop kidney stones despite making these changes, your doctor may prescribe medication to help dissolve the stones and prevent new ones from forming.