Even if you haven’t experienced kidney stones personally, it is likely that you have heard of the incredible discomfort and medical complications they can cause.
Since kidney stones essentially form naturally within the body, they can occur even if you lead a relatively healthy lifestyle, and are caused by anything from genetic predisposition to underlying infections.
However, kidney stones can be incredibly painful, and there is a reason that they are often said to be the closest pain to childbirth that a man can experience.
Kidney stones are very common, with almost 1 in every 20 people experiencing them, so it is ideal to target the causes of kidney stones before they become a problem.
Being able to detect the warning signs of kidney stones early on can greatly reduce complications and excess pain.
What are kidney stones?
As your body intakes food and beverages throughout the day, it works on breaking up all the components into nutrients for the body and expelling the unnecessary stuff through waste.
A kidney stone is literally when small “stones” of mineral deposits form and harden inside the kidneys.
Certain foods and items can contribute to crystallization of urine waste, which allows the minerals and salts to stick together, forming the small, hard stone that has to travel down the urinary passage.
Since the kidneys are the body’s “flushing” system, filtering and sending out the bad stuff through the urinary tract, kidney stones can cause ill effects in this part of the body by disrupting this system, and can be incredibly difficult to pass through such a narrow passage.
What causes kidney stones?
There are a number of factors that can contribute to kidney stones.
A family history of kidney stones can mean you are at a greater risk of developing your own. Similarly, if you’ve already had kidney stones you will have a greater chance of reoccurrence in the future.
One of the greatest factors contributing to the formation of kidney stones is not staying hydrated. Those who don’t drink enough water and particularly those who lead an active lifestyle without enough fluids are at risk.
Research shows that individuals who live in warmer or humid areas may be more susceptible to becoming dehydrated, and are therefore at a greater risk of kidney stones.
Since the function of the kidneys is related to processing and expelling food waste, your diet can obviously impact the presence of kidney stones.
High-sodium diets introduce more salt into the body, which puts more strain on the kidneys to properly flush everything out and can help crystallize urine.
Pregnant women can sometimes develop kidney stones, and it is thought that the hormonal changes in a body during this time may contribute to formation.
Similarly, reduced bladder capacity as a uterus grows may caused reduced fluids to be consumed, thereby contributing by dehydration and less than optimal fluid amounts.
Those with excess weight are also susceptible to kidney stones. Complications that can be due to excess weight like high blood pressure and diabetes also increase the risk of forming kidney stones, as well as a number of dangerous medical complications.
Of course, kidney stones can also be a byproduct of an infection or a larger underlying medical condition. People with gout will have higher levels of uric acid in their bloodstream, which is a key cause of some types of stones.
What are the symptoms of kidney stones?
The reason that so many kidney stones often get to large painful points before anything is done about them is that it is nearly impossible to know if you have kidney stones until they start causing problems.
If you have a large stone in your kidney, that hasn’t yet started to pass, you may start to feel discomfort and pain where your kidneys are in your back and side.
However, most people only realize they have kidney stones once they have begun to pass from the kidneys to the bladder.
It is typically the pain that lets sufferers know something isn’t right, and in addition to being felt in the kidney areas, may also be felt in the abdomen area and the groin.
Most people who experience the pain of kidney stones describe it as a “wave” sensation, in that it seems to come on and build up in intensity, and most people describe it as the worst pain they have ever felt.
Your urination will be a huge clue as to whether something is wrong with your kidneys in general, and particularly as to whether you have kidney stones.
You may feel the need to urinate constantly, but perhaps aren’t able to relieve the sensation.
Kidney irritation can cause greater levels of urination but can also decrease levels, so anything that seems different from normal is a clue that something isn’t right inside.
Painful urination is often cited as a major factor, as is discoloration and/or weird odors of urine. Anytime you see red, pink, or brown in your urine this is a clue that something isn’t right, and cloudy urine is often another telltale sign.
Strong smells that are different from the ordinary mean that there are unwelcome amounts of minerals in your urine.
Remember, if you see blood in your urine it is important to contact a medical professional, as this could be a sign of a number of serious illnesses.
Nausea and vomiting may be associated with kidney stones. Typically, this can accompany the pain being felt, but it can also be a symptom of a break down in the body’s ability to properly process nutrients and waste.
Kidney stones can also leave afflicted people at risk for infections of the urinary tract and the kidneys, or sometimes infections are even responsible for causing stones.
Always be sure that if a fever accompanies these symptoms you see a medical professional immediately.
When to see a doctor
Even if you think you have kidney stones and you want to try and pass them naturally, it is always a good idea to speak to a doctor if you have any symptoms.
Because you can’t see inside your body, you won’t know if there are any accompanying infections, and you may end up causing further complications if, for instance, the stone isn’t small enough for you to pass on your own.
A primary care doctor may be able to take care of your kidney stones with minor interventions, but he or she can also recommend you to an urologist or other specialist in diseases that affect the kidneys and urinary tract.
Immediately seek medical care in cases of:
- Severe pain that makes you unable to sit
- Fever and chills
- Bloody urine
- Pain with nausea and vomiting
- Inability to urinate
How a doctor diagnoses kidney stones
The best reason to see a doctor when dealing with kidney stones is because he or she will be able to run some tests to make sure there are no underlying contributors and that your body will be able to handle the stress of passing the stones.
Blood tests are the best way for a doctor to see if there are elevated levels of a certain mineral in your bloodstream, which can mean your kidneys are having difficulty breaking it down and flushing it out.
Those who have had kidney stones will especially want regular blood tests as a way to check for recurring elevated levels.
Testing your urine is essential, as it will let the doctor see if there are any minerals or stone pieces present in the urine. This can also help you and your doctor become aware of early warning signs in the future.
X-rays and more advanced testing can help to see when kidney stones are moving out of the kidney, and are often necessary in cases of severe discomfort, indicating that a stone is lodged somewhere or having trouble passing naturally.
Even if you pass stones naturally and quickly, it’s essential that your doctor is able to analyze the stones for their makeup, so as to avoid any future issues and address current problems within your body.
If possible, try and urinate over a screen when passing kidney stones so that any small stones or deposits can be shown to your doctor.
How to get rid of kidney stones
Unfortunately, the way to deal with kidney stones most often is by passing them through urine waste.
This is where the painful part of kidney stones comes in, because the experience is similar to trying to fit a pebble down a straw (go ahead and try it).
This is why the pain associated with passing kidney stones is often compared to childbirth, as it literally requires a similar process, in that a large object must be expelled from the body via a series of small passages.
You should always be under the care of a doctor if you are suffering from kidney stones, as it is a condition that can cause many complications, and can be related to more serious medical conditions.
For some people, drinking lots of fluids in combination with pain medication may be enough to flush out unwanted kidney stones, but for other people with more severe cases, more medical intervention is required.
In less severe cases, your doctor may be able to recommend certain muscle relaxers that can make the process of passing stones less intense, and will recommend ways that you can relax your body overall, reducing the strain felt.
When kidney stones are too large to be passed or get stuck while passing, surgery may be required to avoid further complications.
Most stones are in the 4mm size range, which is just about the biggest they get while still being able to be passed effectively.
However, even a 5mm stone has a significantly decreased chance of passing as successfully, so there is very little room for error.
Kidney stones can be larger than 10mm, which will generally always require some sort of targeted medical intervention.
Trying to pass these stones naturally is typically impossible, not to mention incredibly painful and dangerous for additional complications.
There are some medications that basically serve to “block” oxalate and other mineral increase in the blood system and kidneys, which can help reduce stress and inflammation in the area and allow for easier passage.
Doctors have also begun using a procedure of sound waves to try and break up kidney stones. This focuses strong vibrations on the area, literally meant to shake the stones up into smaller pieces that are easier to pass.
While the process itself can cause moderate pain and discomfort, it is typically much quicker and has fewer risks than direct surgical intervention.
Surgery is often the least desired method of treatment, but is often required in the case of very large kidney stones.
A surgeon will either address the problem through an incision in the skin, or through a very fine scope that is inserted through the urinary tract.
Can I reduce my chance of kidney stones?
Your body has a number of processes happening all the time that take care of everything from breaking up food into nutrients to making sure you continue to blink.
Like any machine with complex processes, sometimes things happen, and one small stone in a cog can cause the whole thing to shut down.
Kidney stones are an unfortunate risk in the process of breaking down food and expelling waste, but there are some things you can do to reduce chances of getting kidney stones, or having them return if you’ve already experienced them.
There are several main types of kidney stones, generally dependent on which mineral your body is having trouble breaking down.
By paying attention to the kind of kidney stone you experience, you can make future changes to diet as needed to help prevent future occurrences.
Calcium stones are the most common type, and are typically because your body has an excess of calcium oxalate that it can’t get rid of. Certain food are high in oxalate and your body naturally produces it, so by reducing some of these contributors you can reduce the calcium in your kidneys and urine.
Uric acid stones are most often found in those who do not drink enough fluid and/or eat high protein diets.
Struvite stones typically accompany another infection, and can quickly grow large.
Cystine stones occur in those whose kidneys produce too much of the cystinuria amino acid, although this is typically due to genetic disorders.
Easy lifestyle changes you can make
If you’ve had kidney stones or are worried that you fall into an at-risk category due to genetic history or related infections, adopting simple lifestyle changes can help significantly reduce your chances of kidney stones.
Plus, these tips help to improve overall functioning, keeping your body in good health.
Drink plenty of water: this will help your body flush out toxins and minerals more efficiently and faster, but it will also help make sure that all of your body’s systems are running at peak efficiency, reducing the chance of buildup.
Mind your proteins: We all know that eating proteins is a necessary part of a human diet, but it can be easy to overload on the meats, which can majorly contribute to the formation of stones. The key is to diversify protein choices.
Reduce your oxalate intake: Food like beets, nuts, chocolate, spinach, and other items can increase the amount of calcium oxalate your body takes in, and for those prone to calcium stones, this is often the first change a doctor will recommend.
Skip the salt: Increased sodium will only contribute to your chance of developing stones, so opt for low-sodium foods and salt substitutes.
Reduce sugars: Too much sugar in your diet can directly contribute to the formation of kidney stones, but can also contribute to factor like obesity that will put you at a greater risk.
Vitamin D: While a healthy amount of vitamin D is necessary for your body’s functioning, it can be very easy to overdue the amount you are taking in via supplements or certain foods. Be sure to have your doctor check your blood levels regularly before introducing supplements into your diet.
Make lemonade: Lemon juice is great at increasing the body’s waste expulsion system, and drinking it in water or as lemonade on a regular basis can help keep your passages clear. Be sure you do not add sugar or other ingredients that will negate any of the positive effects of lemon.
The great thing about kidney stones is that once you’ve gone through the terrible experience of passing them, you can take preventative steps to reduce future reoccurrences.
Those who have already experienced them once will be at greater risk for kidney stones returning, but since you should already be speaking to your doctor about the kidney stones, he or she can help you implement a plan to reduce the chances of them returning.