How do you know when a pain is a kidney stone?

How do you know when a pain is a kidney stone?

You’ll know it when you pass a kidney stone.

Some people report that the intense pain of passing a kidney stone is worse than childbirth. The prevalence of kidney stones continues to rise in the U.S., due to diet and lifestyle factors, with more than 500,000 Americans heading to their doctor in search of relief every year.

Hard deposits of minerals and salts, pebble-like “stones” can form in the kidneys or the urinary tract and usually pass through your urine. Typically, several types of kidney stones are caused by crystal-forming substances, such as calcium. Most kidney stones are calcium stones; however, uric acid or gout crystals can lead to uric acid stones. Some infections and antibiotics can lead to the development of stones.

Conditions like obesity and diabetes increase the likelihood of the formation of kidney stones, but they can also be caused by:

  • Diets high in animal protein or sodium
  • Digestive diseases
  • Gastric bypass surgery
  • Low dietary magnesium
  • High sodium intake
  • Antibiotic medications
  • Family history

How will you know if your pain is a kidney stone? Severe pain extending from the back and sides to the pelvis and groin will be a clue in addition to other possible common symptoms: fever and chills, nausea or vomiting, urinary urgency, difficulty passing urine or bloody or cloudy urine. If you have any of these symptoms, seek medical treatment as soon as possible. If your symptoms are mild or moderate, your doctor will most likely provide a medication or an over-the-counter aid to alleviate pain while giving you time to pass the stone on your own.

Since several types of stones exist, Dr. Hiba Sheikh, an internal medicine physician at Aurora Bay Area Health Center in Marinette, Wis., recommends saving your kidney stone if you pass one.

“Identifying the type of stone can help us determine what possible factors may have caused it,” says Dr. Sheikh. “Diet, response to infection, bypass surgery, genetic or environmental factors or hereditary disorders can all create a kidney stone. Keep a strainer on hand to catch the stone, if possible. We’d use the information to prevent additional stones from forming and discuss prevention strategies.”

“If the stone hasn’t passed, we’d use imaging tests such as ultrasound or CT scan to find the location and determine if the stone will pass on its own or if more aggressive treatment is necessary,” says Dr. Sheikh. “We can test for individuals at risk for recurrent stones by doing a 24-hour urine collection or sample.”

Further treatment will depend on the size and location of the stone. If the stone is small, your doctor may advise drinking lots of water or possibly prescribe a narcotic for relief. If the stone is large, your doctor may advise the following treatments:

  • Ureteroscopy: A tube-like instrument with a camera inserted into the urethra to manually remove the stone or break it into pieces.
  • Extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy (ESWL): Used outside of the body, this technique uses sound waves to break up a stone so it can pass more easily.
  • Percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL): Insertion of a tube through a small incision to drain the kidney.

Here are some tips to prevent kidney stones from forming:

  • Drink plenty of water to flush out your urinary tract.
  • Eat less or avoid animal protein, refined sugars or foods containing high fructose corn syrup.
  • Drink no more than one to two cups of caffeinated beverages a day.
  • Restrict your intake of drinks that contain phosphoric acid, like colas.
  • Avoid taking excessive vitamin C supplements or excessive calcium and vitamin D supplements if you are post-menopausal.

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About the Author

Bonnie Farber
Bonnie Farber

Bonnie Farber, health enews contributor, is a communications professional in the Public Affairs and Marketing Operations Department at Advocate Aurora Health. Her experience includes integrated product marketing in the biotechnology field, strategic communications at American Family Insurance and UW Credit Union, and marketing communications consulting for non-profit organizations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. She holds a degree in History from University of Wisconsin-Madison and enjoys playing music in a Brazilian percussion band and volunteering for a listener-sponsored radio station in her free time.