Kidney stones are becoming increasingly common. In fact, it’s estimated that one in 10 people will have a kidney stone at some point in their life. Given the pain that can be associated with kidney stones, many people worry about getting them – but the good news is that they usually aren’t damaging to your overall health.
We’ll walk you through the signs of kidney stones, causes, symptoms to look for and treatment options to help you find relief.
First, what do your kidneys do?
You have two kidneys, each about the size of a fist, located on either side of your body just below the rib cage. Although they’re small, your kidneys perform many complex and vital functions that keep the rest of your body functioning properly, including:
- Helping remove waste and excess fluid
- Filtering the blood to remove toxins
- Controlling the production of red blood cells
- Making vitamins that impact growth
- Releasing hormones that help regulate blood pressure
- Helping manage levels of certain nutrients in the body, such as calcium and potassium
What is a kidney stone?
When minerals or salt accumulate inside your kidneys, they can stick together and form hard deposits called kidney stones. Kidney stones can cause severe lower back pain and painful urination. They can also become a recurring problem if left untreated, so it’s important to diagnose and treat the cause.
What do kidney stones look like?
Kidney stones can vary in size – some could be as small as a grain of sand, while others can be the size of a golf ball. The appearance of a kidney stone can also vary, but they are usually brown or yellow with a smooth or jagged texture.
Types of kidney stones
Not all kidney stones are the same. There are a few types of kidney stones, each with unique causes and symptoms.
Types of kidney stones include:
- Calcium stones are the most common type of kidney stone2, which is usually caused by an excess of calcium oxalate or phosphate.
- Struvite stones form in response to a urinary tract infection. They can grow quickly and become quite large, often with few symptoms.
- Uric acid stones occur in people who lose too much fluid due to chronic diarrhea, malabsorption, a high-protein diet, diabetes or other genetic factors.
- Cystine stones form in people with cystinuria, a hereditary disorder that causes the kidneys to excrete too much of a specific amino acid.
First signs of kidney stones
The first signs of kidney stones are not always easy to identify – some don’t present symptoms at all. But when early signs and symptoms of kidney stones do appear they may include:
- Sharp pain in your side and back, below the ribs
- Blood in your urine
- A burning sensation while urinating
- A frequent urge to urinate or urinating in small amounts
These symptoms can also be signs of other (possibly serious) health conditions, so if you’re experiencing one or more of them it’s important to talk to a doctor right away.
What do kidney stones feel like?
Kidney stones often feel like a sharp, cramping pain in your back and side. This feeling may move to the lower abdomen or groin. The pain often starts suddenly and comes in waves – though these sensations can change as the kidney stone makes its way through your body.
When to go to the hospital for kidney stones
Kidney stones usually aren’t damaging to your overall health, but some kidney stone symptoms may require you to visit your primary care provider or the emergency room. You should see a doctor right away if you experience:
- Severe pain that makes it hard to get comfortable
- Nausea and vomiting combined with pain
- Fever and chills combined with pain
- Blood in your urine
- Difficulty passing urine
Causes of kidney stones
Kidney stones occur when your urine doesn’t have enough fluid but has a high concentration of minerals and substances like calcium, oxalate and uric acid. This causes crystals that can stick together to form one or more kidney stones.
Foods that can cause kidney stones
Your diet can contribute to the development of kidney stones. A good rule of thumb is to avoid eating too much salty food and meat. High-oxalate foods like spinach, rhubarb, almonds, beets, bran cereal, raspberries and sweet potatoes can contribute to kidney stones. Supplemental Vitamin C, fructose and sucrose can also increase kidney stones.
Passing a kidney stone
Everyone’s experience passing a kidney stone is different. Some patients may need nothing more than over-the-counter pain medication and lots of water to pass a kidney stone. While others could need surgery if a stone becomes lodged in the urinary tract, is associated with a urinary infection, or is too large to pass through the body on its own.
How long does it take to pass a kidney stone?
It can take 1-4 weeks for a kidney stone to pass through the body. The time it takes to pass a kidney stone depends on where it is in your body when you begin to feel symptoms and the size of the stone.
How will I know if I passed a kidney stone?
When a kidney stone enters the bladder, any pain you may have felt while trying to pass the stone will significantly decrease. Instead of pain, you may feel pressure and the need to urinate frequently as your body tries to get rid of the stone. In most cases, you can assume the stone has passed completely once you begin to feel relief from your symptoms.
If I’ve had kidney stones once, will I get them again?
If you’ve had a kidney stone, you are 50% more likely to develop another within 5-7 years. Kidney stones increase your risk of developing chronic kidney disease, so it’s important you continue to maintain a balanced diet and drink lots of water to help reduce your risk for future issues – and you may need medications to help reduce your risk for making future stones. If you have had more than one kidney stone or kidney stones in both kidneys, your clinician may recommend an evaluation for more specific treatments to prevent future stones.
How to avoid kidney stones
Making small adjustments to your diet and lifestyle can go a long way to help you avoid kidney stones. Things you can do include:
- Drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated
- Eat more calcium-rich foods
- Limit intake of salt and animal proteins like meat and eggs
Treatment for kidney stones
Treatment for kidney stones varies, depending on the size of the stone and the underlying cause. If you think you’re experiencing signs of a kidney stone, talk to your primary care doctor as soon as possible to get an accurate diagnosis and begin a treatment plan for pain relief.
Pain medication for kidney stones
Most small kidney stones will pass on their own with time. Your doctor may recommend pain medication, like acetaminophen, to help manage discomfort while you wait for the stone to pass. Alpha blockers could also be prescribed to relax the muscles in your ureter, helping you pass a kidney stone more quickly and less painfully.
Kidney stone removal procedures
Kidney stones that are too large to pass on their own may require more extensive treatment. Depending on the type, size and location of your stone, your doctor may recommend a procedure called extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) that uses soundwaves to break up kidney stones, or a surgery to remove the stone through the urethra. Very large stones could require surgery going through the back to be removed more comfortably.
Quality care for kidney stone relief
Kidney stones can be inconvenient and uncomfortable. If you think you’re experiencing early signs of a kidney stone, talk to your primary care doctor as soon as possible to get an accurate diagnosis and begin a treatment plan. If necessary, they can connect you with a urology specialist if you need additional care for the existing stones or a kidney specialist to help reduce the risk of future stones.
If you’re experiencing severe pain – or pain in combination with fever and chills, nausea or trouble passing urine – go to urgent care or the emergency room right away.