Kidney stones are one of the most common disorders of the urinary tract. According to the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC), kidney stones account for almost 3 million visits to health care providers and more than half a million visits to the emergency room. While they’re quite painful, there are few warning signs to provide advance notice they’re there.
The urinary system includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. The two kidneys are responsible for controlling the composition and volume of blood. They accomplish this by removing or restoring water and by removing dissolved mineral wastes. Excess water and wastes are excreted as urine. A kidney stone forms when the chemicals that are normally dissolved in the urine separate out and harden into a “stone.”
According to NKUDIC, urinary tract infections, kidney disorders and some metabolic disorders such as an overactive parathyroid are linked to stone formation. A few rare genetic disorders cause kidney stones. Chronic inflammation of the bowel can cause calcium oxalate stones. It is also possible that water pills, calcium-based antacids and foods that are high in oxalate may increase the risk. However, physicians are not always able to pinpoint a cause.
So how do you know if you have kidney stones? Often you won’t know, because small stones can form and leave the body undetected. Otherwise, stones do not give advance warning signs. The first symptom is usually a sudden, severe pain in the back or side that begins when the stone starts to move through the urinary tract. Your urine may have an odor, or look cloudy or bloody, and you may experience burning upon urination. You may also have a fever, chills and vomiting, but these can be a sign of infection. Be sure to consult a physician if you have fever or vomiting, or if the pain does not go away.
If the kidney stones do not pass after a reasonable amount of time, are too large, block the urine, cause bleeding or have grown larger (visible on X-rays), then several treatments are available. Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy passes shock waves through the body that are harmless to body tissue but break the stones into smaller pieces that can flow through the urine. Percutaneous nephrolithotomy is a type of surgery that removes large stones using an instrument called a nephroscope inserted through an incision in the back. A ureteroscope can be passed through the urethra and bladder, where the stone can be removed or the instrument used to emit a shock wave. This procedure is not common due to the risk of damaging the ureters.
If you have a family history of kidney stones, or if you’ve already had one, then your chances of developing stones are greater. The first key to preventing kidney stones is to drink plenty of water. Medications are also available that help prevent stone formation. Additionally, any underlying causes such as an overactive parathyroid must be addressed.