If you or a loved one has ever experienced kidney stones, you know how excruciating they can be. What you may not know is that kidney stones aren't always painful and rarely cause permanent damage if they are properly treated.
"Kidney stones are hard, pebble-like pieces that form in your kidneys when there are high levels of calcium oxalate and phosphorus in your urine," says Dr. James Lin, an internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. "They can be any size, from minute to — in very rare cases — the size of a golf ball."
Small stones will usually pass easily through your urinary tract; however, larger stones can become stuck. When stuck, kidney stones may block the flow of urine, causing severe pain in your back, side, abdomen or groin.
Additional symptoms include:
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases reports that close to 11 percent of men and 6 percent of women will have kidney stones at least once in their lives. If you have a family history of kidney stones, you are more likely to get them. Furthermore, once you've had kidney stones, you are likely to develop them again.
You are also at greater risk of kidney stones if you don't drink enough liquids; have chronic medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes or gout; are obese; or regularly take diuretics or calcium-based antacids. Excessive physical exercise also increases your risk.
Small kidney stones can usually pass without treatment; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen, can help with pain. Drinking lots of fluids can help move the stones through the urinary tract, although your doctor may need to prescribe a urinary retention medication or an alpha blocker to dilate the ureter and allow the stone to pass more easily.
Larger kidney stones may require treatment, including ultrasound to break stones into small pieces that can naturally pass, or surgical removal of stones that cannot be broken down using ultrasound.
According to Dr. Lin, drinking six to eight glasses of water or more every day to dilute urine and flush away stone-forming minerals is the best way to avoid having kidney stones again. Your doctor may also prescribe an appropriate medicine to prevent the development of more kidney stones.
Additional ways to prevent future kidney stones include the following:
Talk with your doctor about your personal diet and daily liquid consumption. You may be able to prevent future kidney stones by making simple changes in what you eat and drink each day.