In this blog, you will learn everything you need to know about kidney stones, including what they are, how they form, and what you can do to prevent them.
Kidney stones are a widespread occurrence, especially in people at midlife. Kidney stones can cause extreme flank or groin pain, nausea, and vomiting. A certified urologist can recommend the most appropriate treatment, but most kidney stones can be passed naturally during urination.
You’ve likely heard all about kidney stones and how excruciating they can be to pass. the best way to avoid experiencing kidney stone-related agony is to educate yourself and take the necessary steps to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Knowledge is power—in this case, it’s the power of kidney stone prevention.
In this blog, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about kidney stones: what they are, the symptoms, treatment, causes, stages, complications, and why they’re more common during summer.
Why Do More People Get Kidney Stones in the Summer?
Let’s start with the most head-scratching characteristic of kidney stones.
Yes, there is a correlation between summertime and emergency room visits due to kidney stone pain. This is because the summer brings hot, dry weather and plenty of dehydration.
The extra physical exertion, combined with a lack of water intake, causes bodily fluids to become more concentrated with dietary minerals, leading to kidney stones.
However, it’s not only that more stones form inside our bodies during the summer; they tend to move in the summertime. And that movement is what causes the pain.
Let’s explain that in a bit more detail.
Close to 80 percent of kidney stones are made of calcium. Your body produces more calcium in urine during winter when you are less likely to be active. Having too much calcium (a condition called hypercalciuria) increases your chances of developing kidney stones. These stones that form during the winter often lay dormant until you become more active as the weather warms.
Increased physical activity often jostles kidney stones, making it more likely that you’ll begin to feel the symptoms and eventually pain. And it’s this pain that ultimately sends you to the emergency room.
What Are Kidney Stones (and Ureteral Stones)?
Kidney stones (renal lithiasis) and ureteral stones (kidney stones that have moved to the ureters) are common urological health occurrences. They are often due to diet, lifestyle, and family history.
More than 1 million cases of kidney and ureteral stones are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, with about 10 percent of Americans suffering from stone disease at some point during their lifetime.
In the simplest of terms, a kidney stone is a hard object made from “crystal-forming” chemicals, minerals, and substances in urine. You can compare it to a piece of rock candy.
When the system works well, urine should easily dissolve accumulated waste in your kidneys.
However, kidney stones worsen when urine contains more waste than the fluid necessary to dilute and dissolve it. This is when crystals begin to form. There are four main types of stones, each with different characteristics.
- Calcium oxalate: The most common type of kidney stone, calcium stones are created when calcium combines with oxalate in the urine. The formation of calcium oxalate stones is often caused by inadequate calcium and fluid intake, along with a host of other conditions.
- Uric acid: natural chemical compounds known as purines are metabolized by the kidneys into uric acid crystals that can potentially form stones. Foods with high levels of purines include non-dairy animal proteins such as red meat, organ meats, and shellfish. Uric acid stones tend to run in the family. These are the only type of stone that can be dissolved with medication.
- Struvite/infection: Less common than typical kidney stones, Struvite stones are caused by bacteria such as Proteus, Klebsiella, Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus, and Serratia. These typically present with urinary tract infections and large staghorn stones.
- Cystine: The rarest and typically the largest of kidney stones, Cystine stones are often due to a genetic predisposition and tend to reoccur multiple times over a patient’s life.
What Are the Symptoms of Kidney Stones?
It’s essential to understand how to know if you have kidney stones. Common kidney stone symptoms include sharp, cramping pain in the back and side.
This feeling often moves to the lower abdomen or groin as it progresses. It’s a pain that starts suddenly with a profound sharpness, coming and going in waves that can last minutes to hours. It can come and go as your body attempts to remove the stone by flushing it out in the urine.
Other symptoms could include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Blood in your urine
- Pain when urinating
- The feeling of having to urinate but not being able to
- The need to urinate more often
- Fever or chills
- Foul-smelling urine
- Cloudy urine
What Do Kidney Stones Feel Like?
Kidney stones move around, causing a burning sensation once the stone reaches the joint between your ureter and bladder.
However, some people might confuse this feeling with a urinary tract infection (UTI), so it is essential to see your doctor at the onset of symptoms.
Do Kidney Stones Cause Stomach Pain?
While the pain can be felt around the stomach area, it is more associated with abdominal pain just below the ribcage, your side, and your lower back.
As the stone moves from your kidney into your urinary tract, the pain might feel more like a radiating ache in the lower abdomen, pelvis, or groin.
What Are The First Signs of Kidney Stones?
Pain or pressure is typically the first sign of a kidney stone, according to the University of Chicago.
This pain or pressure might initially be subtle and slowly build in intensity. But, of course, there are instances when the pain comes on suddenly with no slow build-up or early warning signs.
How Long Does it Take to Pass a Kidney Stone?
Passing a kidney stone can happen naturally.
Kidney stones measuring 4 mm or less will pass on their own about 80 percent of the time, taking about a month.
Kidney stones more than 4 mm are more likely to require treatment, but 60 percent of those stones pass naturally, taking an average of 45 days.
The Stages of a Kidney Stone
What are the stages of passing a kidney stone?
Stone formation: Most people won’t even know this stage is taking place. Once formed, bodily movement can cause the stone to detach from the inner wall of the kidney. This is when you’ll begin to sense its presence. Next, you will start to feel some discomfort and pain, with that pain progressing to severe pain. It hurts because the stone passes from the kidney into the ureter.
The stone enters the ureter, the tube connecting the kidneys to your bladder. Inside the ureter, there’s a diameter of 2-3 mm. Any kidney stones bigger than that will cause a throbbing pain as the stone moves through the urinary system. In addition, you may feel pain migrating from your back to your groin as the stone moves lower. Medications such as tamsulosin can help relax the muscle in the ureter to widen the diameter for stone passage.
After the journey through the ureter, the stone enters the bladder. Once the stone is in your bladder, it will no longer hurt to pass, and you will easily urinate it out. It is very rare to have a stone get stuck in your urethra. You may have been provided a strainer by the ER or urologist’s office to catch your stone. If you catch your stone, bring it to your urologist’s office for analysis.
How Can I Get Rid of Kidney Stones?
When kidney stones are small enough to pass on their own, though painful, your doctor will likely recommend that you allow them to pass naturally.
However, if there is a concern for a urinary tract infection trapped behind the stone or your symptoms are uncontrolled, your physician might recommend treatment. Your urologist may also recommend treating asymptomatic larger stones in the kidney to prevent future stone episodes.
These treatments could include:
- Ureteroscopy with Laser Lithotripsy: An outpatient procedure in which a surgeon reaches the stone with a scope and extracts it using a basket. The technique could also break the stone into smaller pieces using a laser beam.
- Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy (ESWL): Shockwaves are transmitted through the body to break up kidney stones in this outpatient procedure. After the stones are broken into smaller pieces, the fragments drain through the urinary system.
- Percutaneous Nephrolithotomy: Reserved for larger stones, this inpatient procedure begins with placing a small tube or wire through the back and into the kidney. The tube is enlarged in the operating room, and the stones are broken up by an ultrasound or laser surgery. The tube is removed at the end of the procedure or before discharge from the hospital after observation overnight, and the patient is sent home with a ureteral stent.
- Medical Therapy: For kidney stones composed of uric acid—around 10 percent of kidney stones—medications that decrease the acidity of urine are used to dissolve the stones.
- Ureteral Stents: Tubes are placed in the ureters from the kidney to the bladder, allowing urine to drain and relieve the obstruction. The stents are often inserted following kidney stone surgery to prevent potential swelling following a ureteroscopy or blockage from kidney stone fragments following ESWL.
When Should You See A Urologist For Kidney Stones?
As mentioned a few times in this article, kidney stones will often pass on their own. And though it can be painful, it is perhaps the most desired method recommended by physicians.
However, if you find yourself doubled over in pain or unable to urinate, you should make an appointment for a complete medical examination of the problem.
Specifically, seek help from a urologist if you experience these symptoms:
- Pain so intense you can hardly move
- Bloody urine
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fever and chills
- Inability to urinate
What Causes Kidney Stones?
There are several causes for kidney stones and many conditions that could predispose an individual to experience kidney stones in their lifetime. Some of the most common causes and conditions include:
- Dehydration: Drinking plenty of water ensures a high-function urinary system, flushing the mineral build-up.
- High salt (sodium) intake: Calcium tends to follow high concentrations of sodium excretion in the urine. Limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg daily.
- High protein intake: Diets rich in meat, fish, and chicken lower urinary pH and cause increased excretion of uric acid, which causes kidney stones.
- Genetics: A family history of kidney stones may indicate you have an increased propensity to form stones.
- Vitamin B6 deficiency: This leads to increased formation and excretion of calcium oxalate, the most common form of kidney stones.
- Too many vitamins/supplements: Excessive vitamin C intake, calcium supplementation, and antacids containing calcium may also lead to stone formation. The recommended dietary allowance for calcium (1,000-1,200 mg/day) WILL NOT cause kidney stones.
- Geography: More stones are diagnosed in the southeast United States, earning the region the name “the kidney stone belt.”
How Common Are Kidney Stones?
Kidney stone disease is one of the most common problems of the urinary system. The number of people in the U.S. with kidney stones has been steadily increasing for several years.
Back in 1980, about three in every 100 people experienced a kidney stone at some point. In 1994, that number rose to about five in every 100 people.
Today, one out of every 10 Americans will have a kidney stone during their lifetime. Kidney stones are also becoming more frequent in children, though it’s far more common for stones to occur in midlife.
And while it’s much more common for men to get kidney stones, women are also susceptible to this problem of the urinary system.
Kidney stone attacks lead to more than 2 million visits to the doctor and over 600,000 visits to the ER each year. Meanwhile, with lost time from work, kidney stones’ diagnosis, treatment, and prevention cost almost $5.3 billion each year.
How to prevent kidney stones?
The main reason kidney stones form is dehydration. Therefore, staying hydrated is essential for general health and kidney stone prevention. Along with getting plenty of water, you should also employ these other preventative measures.
- Drink enough fluid with a goal urine output greater than 2 liters (or 64 ounces) daily. This means you will be drinking 12-16 glasses of fluid daily.
- Along with water, add citrus drinks such as lemonade and orange juice to your diet.
- Limit your sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day.
- Calcium from food does not increase stones. The recommended dietary allowance for calcium (1,000-1,200 mg/day) will not cause kidney stones. Certain supplements can lead to stone formation. Consult your doctor.
- Reduce the amount of non-dairy animal protein you eat. Please keep it to no more than 6 oz per day. Meats such as eggs and fish can cause uric acid stones.
- Increase the fruits and vegetables in your diet
- Visit your doctor regularly for checkups. You can even ask your doctor about consulting a dietician for more individualized advice.
How can a urologist help me prevent kidney stones?
Certain patients may benefit from a metabolic evaluation to assess stone risk factors. These patients include people with recurrent stones, a strong family history, recurrent urinary tract infections, obesity, or other medical conditions predisposing them to stones (diabetes, gout, hyperparathyroidism, inflammatory bowel disease, etc.), or those with a solitary kidney.
Metabolic testing can help guide further dietary recommendations and potential medications to prevent kidney stones. In addition, your urologist will order one or two 24-hour urine collections to better identify your stone risk factors and guide prevention strategies.
What Foods Cause Kidney Stones?
Overdoing it with salt, animal protein, and vitamin C could lead to kidney stones. However, pinpointing which foods could potentially cause kidney stones depends on the type of stone.
As mentioned earlier in this article, there are different kidney stones, each with a unique mineral composition. Consult your urologist before making any dietary changes, as this will depend on your type of stone. The best stone prevention you can do is increase fluid intake and limit sodium in your diet.
Limit your intake of high-oxalate foods, such as:
- Almonds and cashews
- Miso soup
- Baked potatoes with skin
- Cocoa powder
- Bran cereals and shredded wheat cereals
- French fries
- Stevia sweeteners
- Sweet potatoes
Limit animal-protein-rich foods, such as:
- Organ meats, like chicken or beef liver
- Milk, cheese, and other dairy products
Can Alcohol Cause Kidney Stones?
While there is no direct link between alcohol use and kidney stones, excessive alcohol use is linked to many other health problems.
This can include kidney damage, kidney failure, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and alcohol use disorders. Some of these conditions can negatively impact the renal system.
Do Energy Drinks Cause Kidney Stones?
There are currently no studies linking energy drinks specifically to kidney stones; however, many of the ingredients found in energy drinks have been known to contribute to the development of kidney stones. The two biggest culprits are:
- Sugar: The link between sugary drinks and kidney stones is related to higher urine calcium. High urine calcium is one of the most common causes of kidney stones.
- Sodium: Consuming too much sodium can also increase urine calcium. A crucial part of preventing calcium kidney stones is a low-sodium diet.
Does Creatine Cause Kidney Stones?
Yes. Studies have linked creatine to the formation of kidney stones. As such, anyone using a creatine supplement should take extra care of their renal system.
Does Coffee Cause Kidney Stones?
Good news, coffee enthusiasts: A recent study states that higher coffee and caffeine consumption may cause a reduction in kidney stones.
Can Kidney Stones Cause Gastrointestinal Problems?
One of the possible symptoms of kidney stones is nausea, vomiting, and general stomach discomfort. As such, kidney stones are indeed linked to gastrointestinal problems.
Kidney Stone Complications
Are kidney stones dangerous?
Most kidney stones will pass with varying pain levels, perhaps some blood, but not much else. However, the kidney stone can become stuck in the ureter. If it stays there, there is potential for it to cause serious problems, even life-threatening complications. If a stone is stuck for longer than six weeks, this may start to cause kidney damage.
Can kidney stones cause a UTI?
The longer the kidney stone remains in the body, the more complications could develop. For example, if a kidney stone blocks the ureter long enough, it could increase the risk of a UTI or kidney infection. If you have fevers higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit along with flank pain, seek immediate medical attention.
Can a kidney stone kill you?
In all probability, a kidney stone will not kill you. However, if prolonged cases are left untreated, it could lead to other health complications that could prove life-threatening later in life. In other rare cases, the kidney stone could bring an infection. If the infection is left to fester, it could develop into a severe problem.