Kidney Stones: Definition, Treatment and Prevention

November 23, 2013 at 3:46 AM

Roughly 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with kidney stones on a yearly basis and even though this number sounds like a lot, if you take a close look at the percentage amount, you'll realize that it's really small. 1.5 million people represent less than 1 percent of the United States total population.

What are kidney stones?

If you wonder kidney stones what are they, then you should know that the medical term for them is "renal lithiasis" and they're basically hard and small deposits that form inside your kidneys. The composition of a kidney stone is simple, being made up only of acid salts and minerals. Even though they initially affect the urinary tract, kidney stones have many causes and if left untreated, they can even affect the bladder. Most of the times kidney stones form when the concentration of your urine grows, thus increasing the chance of minerals crystallizing and eventually sticking together.

Even though passing a kidney stone doesn't cause permanent damage, passing one can be very painful. Based on your situation, you may just need to consider drinking lots of liquids and taking pain medications, yet if the kidney stones you have are big, then surgery may be required. If you're at an increased risk of developing kidney stones again, your doctor will recommend you a preventive treatment that needs to be strictly followed.

Kidney stone prevention and risk factors

If you are worried about kidney stones and you want to do your best in order to prevent them, then you should know that this is quite simple and you just need to take some medications and make some minor changes to your lifestyle.

Lifestyle changes: you can easily reduce your chances of kidney stones if you:

  1. Are cautious with calcium supplements and eat calcium-rich foods. The risk of having kidney stones is not affected by the calcium in the foods you eat. Unless your doctor advises you not to, you can continue eating these types of foods. However, if you want to take calcium supplements, then you need to speak to your doctor first.
  2. Consider a diet that's low in animal protein and salt. It's best if you get your protein from non-animal sources, such as legumes and be sure you also reduce your salt intake.
  3. Consider eating fewer foods that are rich in oxalate. Your doctor will restrict foods rich in oxalate if you tend to form calcium oxalate stones. To offer some examples, they include soy products, chocolate, tea, nuts, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, spinach, okra, beets and rhubarb.
  4. Drink water throughout the day. If you already have a history of kidney stones, then you should pass around two point five liters of urine every day. To ensure that you're drinking enough water, your doctor may ask you to measure your urine output. However, if you exercise frequently or you live in a hot environment, then you may be required to drink even more water. As a tip to know if you're drinking enough water, be sure you check your urine and if it's clear and light, then you're doing things right.

Some of the factors that may increase the risk of developing kidney stones are:

  1. Being obese. Weight gain, a large waist size and a high BMI have been linked to an increased risk of developing kidney stones.
  2. Dehydration. If you don't drink plenty of water throughout the day, then you'll increase your risk of developing kidney stones. If you sweat a lot or live in a warm climate, then your risk of developing kidney stones is much higher.
  3. Personal or family history. If you have one or more family members that developed kidney stones, then you'll likely develop them as well. 

Available treatment options for kidney stones

If you have small stones, then you'll likely require no treatment at all other than drinking enough fluids and taking pain medicine. On the other hand, if you have your first kidney stone, your doctor tells you that it can pass on its own and you can cope with the pain, then you may be recommended some really effective home treatments such as:

  1. Drinking enough fluids. When you're passing a kidney stone, you need to drink plenty of water and other fluids to make the process faster and easier.
  2. Using pain medicine. To relieve your pain you'll generally need to take NSAIDs. If needed, you can talk to your doctor so he can prescribe you stronger pain medicine.

There are cases though when the pain is just too much to handle and in these types of situations, especially if you have another infection or if the stones block the urinary tract, you may have to go through various medical procedures. Some of them include surgery to deal with the stone or lithotripsy. 

Causes of kidney stones

If you're wondering just why or when kidney stones appear, they generally form when the normal balance of minerals, salts, water and other substances in your urine changes. The type of kidney stone you'll develop is influenced by the way the balance changes. For instance, most kidney stones are calcium type, which means they'll form when your urine's calcium levels change.

To include some of the factors that contribute to the change in your urine balance, they are:

  1. Medical conditions. There are many kinds of medical conditions that can disrupt the regular calcium balance for instance and some of them are Crohn's disease, inflammatory bowel disease and gout.
  2. Not drinking enough water. If you don't drink plenty of water every day, the minerals, salts and other substances in your urine begin to stick together and that’s when a kidney stone will start to form. 

Kidney stone diagnosing

You can only be diagnosed once you visit the emergency room or your doctor because you're in great pain. When you get there, the medical professionals will start asking you questions and also examine you. After you'll eventually pass a stone, you'll be given an exam in order for the doctor to know if you're at risk for developing kidney stones again. 

Tests to diagnose kidney stones

One or even more of the tests below will be recommended by your doctor in order to find out if you indeed have kidney stones, to find out where they are in your system and if there are chances they'll damage the urinary tract or are already damaging it.

  1. Ultrasonogram (this is the preferred test for pregnant women).
  2. A KUB or abdominal X-ray which gives a picture of the bladder, kidneys and the tubes connecting the kidney to the bladder.
  3. Urine cultures and urinalysis test of your urine.
  4. If the CT scan or IVP don't provide a diagnosis, you'll need to undergo a retrograde pyelogram.
  5. IVP (this is a type of X-ray test that shows the position, shape and size of your urinary tract, including the ureters and the kidneys.
  6. The preferred method of testing for kidney stones is the noncontrast spiral CT scan. 

Kidney stones are not really a major health concern, yet if they are left untreated there are chances they'll damage the urinary tract and even the bladder. If you think you have kidney stones or you just feel pain when passing urine, then seeing your doctor right away and having one of the aforementioned examinations may tell you whether you're dealing with a kidney stone or not.

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Written by: Michal Vilímovský (EN)
Education: Physician
Published: November 23, 2013 at 3:46 AM
Next scheduled update: November 23, 2015 at 3:46 AM
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