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Kidney Stones

Kidney stones are solid objects formed from crystals your body makes that can move through your urinary tract. If you've ever passed a kidney stone, you know that kidney stone pain can be intense.

UPMC doctors can treat kidney stones and suggest lifestyle changes to prevent more kidney stones from forming.

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What Are Kidney Stones?

Doctors define kidney stones as hard, pebble-like objects that form in one or both of your kidneys. Your kidneys are part of your urinary tract. They're under your rib cage on either side of your spine. The kidneys filter waste from your blood and produce urine.

Kidney stones happen when chemicals in the urine make tiny crystals that stick together. The resulting stones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a pea. They sometimes move from the kidneys through the urinary tract.

Kidney stone symptoms vary. Some stones pass through the urinary tract with no problem, while larger kidney stones can get stuck. These bigger stones can cause severe pain, block the flow of urine, and lead to other problems.

Kidney stones are common, more so among men. About 11% of men and 6% of women will have at least 1 kidney stone in their lifetime.

What are the types of kidney stones?

There are different types of kidney stones. Your doctor may base your treatment on what type of stone you have. The types of kidney stones are:

  • Calcium oxalate. This is the most common type of kidney stone. They form when calcium in the kidneys combines with the compound oxalate.
  • Cystine. This rare type of kidney stone happens if you have a genetic issue called cystinuria.
  • Struvite. This less common type of kidney stone forms out of struvite, a substance that occurs after a urinary tract infection.
  • Uric acid. This common type of kidney stone forms when compounds in red meat and shellfish make your urine too acidic.

What causes kidney stones?

Kidney stones form when your urine is too concentrated — often from not drinking enough water. The chemicals in the urine make crystals that stick together and form a stone.

Most people who get kidney stones don't drink enough water. Staying hydrated will help stop kidney stones from forming and will also help flush out small stones.

What are kidney stone risk factors and complications?

Being aware of kidney stone risk factors and the issues they cause can help you avoid some kidney stones.

Kidney stone risk factors

Dehydration (not drinking enough fluids) is the main risk factor for getting kidney stones. Other risk factors include:

  • A diet heavy in animal protein, salt, or sugar.
  • Any blockage in your urinary tract.
  • Having had kidney stones before.
  • Taking certain medicines. Calcium-based antacids can raise your risk of getting kidney stones. So can diuretics, which are drugs that help rid your body of water.

You may also be at higher risk for kidney stones if you have:

Complications of kidney stones

Kidney stones increase your risk of getting serious health issues, including:

  • Chronic kidney disease.
  • Kidney infections and other UTIs.
  • Loss of kidney function.

How can I prevent kidney stones?

You may not be able to prevent all kidney stones. But you can reduce your risk of getting kidney stones by making certain lifestyle choices.

To help prevent kidney stones, you should:

  • Drink lots of water. You should drink 8 glasses of water (8 ounces) each day to stay hydrated.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Get the right amount of calcium in your diet. Your doctor can tell you what that is.
  • Limit the amount of sodium and animal protein in your diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Stones?

Kidney stone symptoms may vary, depending on how big the stone is.

The most telling sign of a kidney stone is moderate to severe pain. The pain from kidney stones can move into your upper abdomen, sides, lower back, and bladder.

If you have a kidney stone, you may also feel a frequent need to go to the bathroom.

What are four symptoms of kidney stones?

Besides pain and frequent urination, four other signs of kidney stones are:

  • Blood in your urine.
  • Sand or gravel in the urine, making it look cloudy.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

You should call your doctor if you have intense pain or any of the symptoms above.

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How Do You Diagnose Kidney Stones?

Your doctor will ask you about your health history, especially if you've had kidney stones before. They'll also do a physical exam.

Then your doctor may order:

  • Blood work, to find out levels of calcium and uric acid in your blood.
  • Imaging tests, to see the size and shape of the kidney stones and where they are.
  • Urine tests, to find out what chemicals are in your urine.
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How Do You Treat Kidney Stones?

Your kidney stone treatment will depend on the size of the stone. The doctors at UPMC are experts at diagnosing and getting rid of kidney stones.

The stone may be small enough to pass on its own. If so, your doctor may advise you to go home and drink lots of water to flush it out.

If you pass the stone at home, your doctor may ask you to catch it with a special strainer. They can run tests to find out what kind of kidney stone it is. Then they can suggest lifestyle and dietary changes to prevent future kidney stones.

For larger kidney stones, your doctor may prescribe:

  • Extracorporeal shock wave therapy. This non-invasive treatment sends shock waves through your skin to the kidney stone to break it up.
  • Medicine. Certain drugs reduce the chemicals in your blood and urine that form stones.
  • Percutaneous nephrolithotomy. During this surgery, doctors make an incision in your back and use a tube-like instrument to remove larger stones.
  • Ureteroscopy. Doctors insert a scope with a light into your urethra. A basket device collects the stone.
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Last reviewed by Susan Marchezak, CRNP on 2024-05-14.