Kidney stones: how to avoid these not-so-precious gems

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Here’s a statistic from the National Kidney Foundation you may not know: more than half-a-million Americans visit the Emergency room each year due to problems associated with kidney stones. If you’re one of those people – like I am – you know how miserable kidney stones are.

A few years ago, I woke up with an excruciating pain in my back, and I had a feeling I had a kidney stone. A trip to the ER and a quick CT scan of my kidneys confirmed my fears.

But what are kidney stones? I asked Jay Paddack, MD from the Banner Health Clinic specializing in Urology, to explain kidney stones to me.

“A kidney stone is a solid piece of material that is formed by an excess of certain minerals in the urine, most commonly calcium,” Dr. Paddack said.  “Stones vary in size and composition and can form anywhere throughout the urinary tract.”

There are several factors that increase your chances of forming kidney stones, according to Dr. Paddack:

  • Low fluid intake: This is the most common cause of kidney stones.
  • Diet: High sodium and high protein diets can increase the risk
  • Personal or family history of stones: If you or a family member has previously had stones, this increases your chance of developing them.
  • Obesity: High BMI is linked to stone formation.
  • Medications: Taking certain medicines such as acetazolamide and indinavir can increase the risk.
  • Medical problems: Anyone dealing with diabetes, Crohn’s disease, hyperparathyroidism, gout, renal tubular acidosis and cystinuria has a higher chance of developing kidney stones. People who have had previous intestinal surgery like gastric bypass are also more susceptible. Also, any blockage of the urinary tract can lead to stone formation.
  • Age: Stones are more common in adults over the age of 30, but the incidence in children is increasing.
  • Gender: Stones are more common in males, but the incidence in females is increasing.
Dr. Paddack also said that stones become a problem when they begin to pass through the urinary tract, causing severe pain, urine obstruction and sometimes infection. Most stones pass, but sometimes surgical procedures are necessary to remove them.

The one I had all those years ago was about the width of my smallest fingernail, and I couldn't sit, stand or lie down without hurting because of it. It required a shock wave lithotripsy, a really cool procedure that uses sound waves focused on the stone to break it into smaller, more easily passed fragments.

Other surgical options include using a small scope inserted into the ureter to see the stone and a laser to break it up or inserting a scope through a small incision in the back breaking the stone up and removing it.

So, what can someone do to prevent getting kidney stones?

“Fluid intake and diet is the key to prevention,” Dr. Paddack emphasized.

His recommendation is to try to drink two to three liters of water every day or enough to keep the urine a light yellow to clear color. For diet, it may depend on the type of stone that the patient had previously. However, Dr. Paddack said, in general, a diet low in sodium and animal protein has shown to reduce stone formation.

Testing for kidney stones usually doesn’t happen until after you start showing signs of having one – severe fluctuating pain in lower back that radiates to the abdomen and groin. Symptoms may also include bloody urine, nausea and vomiting, frequent (sometimes difficult) urination and fever.

Dr. Paddack noted different types of tests may be used to determine if you have a kidney stone, including blood tests, a urinalysis and urine culture, to see if you have an infection. Imaging studies, such as a non-contrast CT scan, X-ray or ultrasound, are the best method to diagnosing kidney stones.

I certainly remember the pain from the stone I had. It’s something I hope to never have to go through again. Now, I think I’ll go get myself another glass of water.

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