Kidney stones are common urinary tract disorders. Kidney stones can form in your kidneys when normal substances in your urine become too concentrated. When this happens, solid material can stay in your kidney or may move down your urinary tract, eventually passing out of your body.
Kidney stones don’t always cause symptoms. When they’re small, they may pass on their own without pain. However, large stones may block urine flow, which can cause a number of painful symptoms that can be severe. This can happen when a kidney stone becomes stuck in the ureter, which is the tube that connects your bladder to your kidneys. However, the size of the stone doesn’t always correspond to the severity of the pain. Sometimes, a kidney stone can lodge in a certain area in your kidney and cause discomfort. The pain a kidney stone causes can vary as it moves around in your kidney and down the ureter.
The location of the stone and its progress through your urinary tract can affect the type of symptoms you experience. Many people describe the feeling of kidney stones as a sharp pain on one side of their back or lower abdomen. The pain often starts abruptly and then lingers, becoming more intense over time. The affected area can also spread to include the groin area and lower abdomen.
You may experience constant pain, or the pain may come and go in waves, sometimes lasting for a few minutes and then disappearing, only to resurface again about 10 minutes later. In some cases, the pain may last for a longer time while fluctuating in intensity. A change in the level of intensity may occur as the stone moves to a different position in your urinary tract.
In addition to feeling severe pain in your back or side below your ribs, a number of other symptoms may also occur with kidney stones. One of the most common is problems with urination. This can include:
- pain while urinating
- urine that appears cloudy
- urine that smells differently than it normally does
- an urge to urinate more often than usual
Blood present in the urine due to kidney stones can also cause urine to appear brown, pink, or red.
You should see your doctor if you have pain with any of the following symptoms:
These symptoms may indicate that you have an infection.
You should also seek medical help if you have:
- pain that becomes so severe you can’t sit, stand, or lie down comfortably
- blood in your urine
- difficulty urinating
If you’re uncertain whether your symptoms might be related to kidney stones, the clock may provide you with clues. Pain from kidney stones usually starts either late at night or early in the morning. This is because people generally urinate less frequently at night or in the early morning, and the ureter is usually constricted in the morning.
Your doctor will ask you about your health history. Sometimes medications you take may make you more likely to have a kidney stone. Examples include:
Your doctor may confirm a diagnosis of kidney stones by ordering tests. They can test your blood for the presence of excess uric acid or calcium. A buildup of either of these can cause kidney stones to develop. They may advise you to collect your urine for 24 to 48 hours. A laboratory can then test it for the presence of substances that are known to cause kidney stones to form.
Your doctor may use imaging studies such as CT scans or X-rays to identify the presence of stones in the urinary tract. An ultrasound is another noninvasive test that can check for blockages in the ureters and kidney abnormalities. However, some stones may be so small or in such a position that they aren’t visible on an imaging study.
After your doctor diagnoses your kidney stones, they may give you a special strainer to use each time you urinate. You can use this to collect any stones or pieces of stones that may come out. Collecting the stones is beneficial because your doctor can send them for lab analysis. Knowing what kind of kidney stones you’ve passed can help your doctor work with you to create a plan for reducing your risk for future kidney stones.
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Passing a stone
Most kidney stones will eventually leave your body by passing from the kidneys to the ureters to the bladder and out through your urine. This is the route your urine travels every day. A stone passing through this route can cause pain.
Passing a kidney stone can take a few days to several weeks. For this reason, most doctors recommend passing the stone or stones at home. Your doctor may prescribe anti-nausea or pain medications for you to take while you’re attempting to pass the stone. Drinking more water can also help you flush out your urinary system, but don’t overdo it. Drinking 2 to 3 quarts of water per day should be enough.
Your doctor can determine the size of your stones using an imaging study. If they determine that it’s very large or you’re having signs of severe infection, it may not be safe to try and pass the stone at home.
Lithotripsy is a procedure that involves the use of shock waves to break up the stone into smaller pieces. This makes the stone easier to pass. If this doesn’t break up the stone or the stone is in a location where lithotripsy may not be effective, your doctor can use more invasive methods. This includes inserting a special scope called a ureteroscope into your urethra. Your doctor will advance it upward until they access the stone. Another procedure, known as percutaneous nephrolithotomy, involves making a small incision in your back to access the kidney and remove the stone.
You should seek emergency treatment for your kidney stone if any of the following occurs:
- You have a fever or chills, which can indicate the presence of infection.
- You stop producing urine.
- You have a history of kidney removal and have only one kidney.
- You have severe nausea or vomiting.
- You develop confusion or severe fatigue.
Although these symptoms are rare with a kidney stone, they can occur. Even if your pain is mild, you should still seek emergency attention.