Renal colic is a type of pain you get when urinary stones block part of your urinary tract. Your urinary tract includes your kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra.

You can get stones anywhere in your urinary tract. They form when minerals like calcium and uric acid get stuck together in your urine and create hard crystals. The stones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. When these stones grow big enough, they can become very painful.

Small stones may not cause any symptoms. Larger stones can cause renal colic, especially if they block a ureter. This is the tube urine travels through on its way from your kidney to your bladder.

Symptoms of renal colic include:

  • intense pain along the side of your body between your ribs and hip, or in your lower abdomen
  • pain that spreads to your back or groin
  • nausea or vomiting

Renal colic pain often comes in waves. These waves can last from 20 to 60 minutes.

Other symptoms of urinary stones include:

  • pain when you urinate
  • blood in your urine, which may be pink, red, or brown
  • cloudy or foul-smelling urine
  • gravel — tiny pieces of stones in your urine
  • urgent need to urinate
  • urinating more or less than usual
  • fever and chills (if you have an infection)

Renal colic happens when a stone gets lodged in your urinary tract, often in a ureter. The stone stretches and widens the area, causing intense pain.

About 12 percent of men and 6 percent of women will get one or more urinary stones in their lifetime. The rate of renal colic is increasing due to changes in our diet and lifestyle habits.

A few factors increase your risk of getting urinary stones, including:

  • a diet high in substances that cause stones to form, such as oxalate or protein
  • a family or personal history of stones
  • dehydration from not drinking enough fluid, or from losing too much fluid through sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • obesity
  • gastric bypass surgery, which increases your body’s absorption of calcium and other substances that form stones
  • metabolic disorders, inherited diseases, hyperparathyroidism, and other conditions that can increase the amount of stone-forming substances in your body
  • urinary tract infection

See your doctor if you have symptoms of renal colic or urinary stones. Your doctor can do tests to look for increased levels of substances that form stones in your blood or urine. A CT scan can look for stones in your kidneys and other urinary organs.

If you have a large stone, your doctor can do one of these procedures to remove it and relieve renal colic:

  • Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL): This procedure uses shock waves aimed at your kidneys to break up the stones into very small pieces. You then pass the stone fragments in your urine.
  • Ureteroscopy: Your doctor inserts a thin, lighted scope up through your urethra and bladder to remove the stone.
  • Percutaneous nephrolithotomy: This procedure uses tiny instruments inserted through a small cut in your back to remove a stone. You will be asleep during this procedure.

In the short term, your doctor will give you medicines to relieve the pain of renal colic. Options include:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil)
  • drugs to prevent muscle spasms
  • opioid medicines

Renal colic is a symptom of urinary stones. It doesn’t have its own complications. If you don’t treat urinary stones, you can develop complications such as urinary tract infection or kidney damage.

To avoid getting renal colic in the future, take these steps to prevent urinary stones:

  • Drink at least 8 to 10 glasses of water a day. Cut back on sodas, especially ones that contain phosphoric acid.
  • Cut back on salt in your diet.
  • Limit animal protein from foods like red meat, fish, and eggs
  • Limit foods that are high in oxalate, such as spinach, nuts, and rhubarb.

Your doctor might also prescribe medicine to prevent stones from forming.

Most urinary stones will eventually pass on their own. Treatments like ESWL and lithotripsy can remove stones that don’t.

Urinary stones can come back. About half of people who have one stone will get another within five years. Drinking extra fluids and taking other steps to prevent stones can help you avoid them, and prevent renal colic in the future.