Kidney stones are essentially salts in the urine that have formed into solid crystals, and it’s safe to say they are usually not a pleasant thing to experience.
There are several types of kidney stones. Calcium stones – formed when calcium combines with either oxalate or phosphate – are the most common. Symptoms can range from none at all, to illness, fever and severe pain that requires hospitalisation. Complications can include urinary tract and kidney infection, and permanent kidney damage.
Kidney stones are more than three times more common in men than women, and once a person has had one, they have a relatively high chance of experiencing another. An accurate diagnosis of kidney stones is therefore important for determining the right treatment and for avoiding recurrence.
So what can be done?
Kidney stone treatment:
The majority of stones will pass naturally and the best treatment in most cases is likely to be analgesics where pain is present. For larger stones or those that do not pass, there are several treatment options available, including:
- Endoscopic removal – a day procedure used for smaller stones (under 2cm). It involves passing an instrument into the bladder, locating the stone with a small camera and removing it or breaking it into fragments through a procedure known as lithotripsy.
- Extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy (ESWL) – use of ultrasound waves to break up small stones so they can be passed.
- Percutaneous nephrolithotomy – used for complex cases or larger stones. It involves making a small incision in the skin and using lithotripsy to break up the stone so it can be passed.
- Medications – these include drugs for reducing calcium excretion or for preventing the formation of uric acid stones.
- Surgery – in Australia, surgery to remove stones is rare, being reserved for very severe cases of obstruction.
Get to the cause!
If you suffer from kidney stones and wish to avoid recurrence, it’s best to find out what is causing them to occur. Often they can form when there are high levels of calcium, oxalate, cysteine or uric acid in the urine. In some cases, certain medications and conditions can also increase the risk.
This makes it important to get an accurate diagnosis, to determine as much as possible why they are occurring. It may be that your fluid intake is too low, salt intake too high, your medication needs changing, or that they are being caused by a particular health condition.
Diagnosis can be done through ultrasound, CT scan, X-ray or from examining a passed stone to determine what type it is.
Reducing the risk
Prevention is always better than cure of course. There are a number of things you can do to improve your chances of avoiding kidney stones. Keeping well-hydrated is key, especially since two to three litres of water is lost from the body each day through elimination, sweat, and through the lungs. Water is considered the best choice, with sugar-based and caffeinated drinks kept at a minimum. Certain juices may be helpful however, such as cranberry or citrus. Alcohol should also be limited as it has a dehydrating effect on the body.
In general, the same principles apply as for reducing the risk of other types of illness, such as maintaining a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise, reducing salt intake and avoiding smoking. In that sense, making lifestyle changes for kidney health and for avoiding kidney stones may benefit you in other areas as well – such as lowering your risk of hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.
Your kidneys are precious and your life depends on them! If you do pass a kidney stone, be sure to get prompt diagnosis and treatment from your doctor or a kidney stone specialist to determine the cause and to help avoid recurrence.