Skip to Content

Kidney Stone Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Kidney stones are a painful condition that occurs when chemicals in your urine form crystals that bind together. These crystals make hard, stone-like pieces that can block the flow of urine and be hard to pass when peeing.

More than half a million people go to the ER each year because of kidney stones.

Contact the UPMC Urology Department to make an appointment.


What Are Kidney Stones?

Kidney stones are common. They form in the kidneys and may move through the urinary tract.

Men are more likely than women to get kidney stones.

You're at greater risk if someone in your family has kidney stones or if you've had them before.

About the kidneys

Your kidneys are part of your urinary tract. These fist-sized organs sit below your rib cage on either side of your spine.

Your kidneys act as filters that remove waste from your body.

After your kidneys filter your blood, excess water and chemicals make a liquid waste product called urine or pee. Pee moves through your urinary tract constantly.

Besides the kidneys, the urinary tract includes your:

  • Bladder. The hollow muscular organ that holds pee.
  • Ureters. Two thin tubes that move pee from the kidneys to the bladder.
  • Urethra. The tube that pee travels to leave your body.

What Causes Kidney Stones?

Kidney stones form when the chemicals in your pee make crystals that join and form a hard, stone-like piece.

Different chemicals cause different types of stones:

  • Calcium oxalate. When calcium (a mineral) and oxalate (a compound) found in urine combine, calcium oxalate stones can form. These are the most common type of kidney stones.
  • Uric acid. When a blood waste product called uric acid builds up in the kidneys, uric acid crystals form. Uric acid may build up if you eat a high-purine diet found in foods such as organ meats, sardines, and anchovies. Uric crystals form another common type of kidney stone.
  • Struvite. Struvite is a substance that forms when you have a kidney infection or infection in the ureters (the upper urinary tract). Struvite stones sometimes stay in the kidney or move to the ureters.
  • Cystine. Cystine is an amino acid that builds up in the pee if you have a rare genetic condition called cystinuria. This type of kidney stone is rare.

What Are the Risk Factors for Kidney Stones?

The foods you eat and the liquids you drink can increase your risk of getting certain kidney stones.

Kidney stones can form when you consume too much:

  • Animal protein, including meat, eggs, milk, and cheese.
  • Fish or shellfish.
  • Fructose, a type of sugar found in fruit.
  • Leafy greens, such as spinach.
  • Nuts.
  • Organ meats, like liver and kidney.
  • Salt or sugar.

Kidney stones can also occur if you're dehydrated. To prevent dehydration:

  • Aim to drink at least 64 ounces of water daily.
  • Drink extra fluids if you exercise or live in a hot climate to help you stay hydrated.

You may have a higher risk of kidney stones if someone in your family has them.

You may also be more likely to get kidney stones if you have:

  • Cystic kidney disease.
  • Diabetes.
  • Digestive diseases, such as gallstones or irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Gout.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Hypercalciuria (too much calcium in your pee).
  • Hyperoxaluria (too much oxalate in your pee).
  • Hyperparathyroidism (too much parathyroid hormone, which creates extra blood calcium).
  • Obesity.
  • Repeated UTIs.

What Are the Complications of Kidney Stones?

After you get one kidney stone, you're more likely to get another. Kidney stones may make you more likely to develop chronic kidney disease.

Left untreated, kidney stones can cause pain and infection, especially if you can't pass the stone when peeing. This can increase your chances of having blood in your urine.

How Do I Prevent Kidney Stones?

You can reduce your risk of kidney stones by:

  • Staying at a healthy weight.
  • Limiting the amount of sodium, animal protein, or calcium in the foods you eat. If you've already had a kidney stone, talk to your doctor about diet changes you should make.
  • Staying well hydrated.

Talk to your doctor about your risk of kidney stones.

Why Choose UPMC Urology for Kidney Stone Care?

Our experts:

  • Use advanced technologies to diagnose and treat kidney stones.
  • Assess your kidney stone risk and relieve your pain as quickly as possible.
  • Focus on restoring healthy urinary tract function and helping prevent kidney stones.

To make an appointment, contact a UPMC urologist near you.


What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Stones?

Kidney stone symptoms mostly depend on how big the stone is.

You could have a kidney stone that is tiny and causes few symptoms. But you might have a much larger stone that causes more noticeable symptoms.

Kidney stone symptoms can include:

  • Bloody, cloudy, or foul-smelling urine.
  • Burning or pain when you pee.
  • Being unable to pee.
  • Feeling like you need to pee often.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Pain, sometimes severe, in your lower back, belly, or groin.

When Should I See a Doctor for Kidney Stones?

Talk to your doctor if you have any symptoms of kidney stones.

Seek care right away if you:

  • Feel severe pain.
  • See blood in your urine.
  • Get a fever.
  • Can't pee at all or have trouble peeing.

How Do You Diagnose Kidney Stones?

UPMC urologists talk with you about your medical history and any family history of kidney stones. They'll also do a physical exam.

Your doctor may order tests such as:

  • Urine tests to assess levels of stone-forming chemicals in your pee.
  • Blood tests to assess levels of calcium and uric acid in your blood.
  • Imaging tests to see the size, shape, and location of kidney stones.
  • Intravenous pyelogram (IVP) to learn more about the size and location of kidney stones. IVP is a special x-ray that uses an injected dye to take pictures.

Your doctor may ask you to pee through a strainer. If you pass a stone, doctors will analyze it to learn about the chemicals that caused it.

This helps them form a plan to help you from getting kidney stones again.

How Do You Treat Kidney Stones?

Your doctor will use what they learn about the size, location, and type of kidney stones to treat you.

If stones are small, they may have you drink a lot of water to help you pass the stone while peeing. They may also ask you to collect any stones you pass to learn more about them.

Larger kidney stones may require treatment.

Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL)

ESWL is a noninvasive treatment that directs shock waves through your skin to the kidney stone. The waves break the stone into sand-like particles that pass easily through the urinary tract.


During ureteroscopy, doctors insert a thin scope with a light into your urethra. They use a basket device to collect the stone.

They may use a laser to break stones into smaller pieces for collection or so you can pass them.

Percutaneous nephrolithotomy

Surgeons use percutaneous nephrolithotomy to retrieve larger kidney stones or those that are hard to reach. They make a tiny incision in your back and insert a tube-like instrument to retrieve stones.

Medicine to help treat or prevent kidney stones

Your doctor may prescribe drugs to reduce stone-forming chemicals in your blood and urine.

These include:

  • Allopurinol to reduce uric acid.
  • Sodium cellulose phosphates to control calcium levels.
  • Water pill to help you pee more often.
  • Thiola to reduce the amount of cystine in your urine.

Lifestyle changes

Your doctor will suggest lifestyle changes based on the type of kidney stones you've had. Ask them for a list of foods you should avoid.

Your doctor may tell you to:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water.
  • Avoid apple and grapefruit juices.
  • Drink cranberry juice.
  • Avoid calcium or vitamin D supplements or calcium-based antacids.
  • Avoid foods that have added vitamin D.
  • Avoid foods high in oxalate, such as spinach.
  • Eat less meat, fish, and poultry.
  • Reduce sodium intake.

Make an Appointment for Kidney Stone Treatment at UPMC

Our experts provide specialty care for all types of kidney stones. We lead research to find new and better ways to treat and manage kidney disease.

Contact the UPMC Urology Department at 412-692-4100.