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What is a kidney stone?

One in six people will develop a kidney stone and the pain is often so severe, people think they are dying, says Bob Mann, M.D., a Piedmont urologist. He explains the risk factors and symptoms for this common condition.

Stone disease is the formation of stones or calculi in the urinary tract. The stones consist of minerals and salts that combine and crystalize inside the urinary tract. 

Small stones can often pass through the urine, but larger stones can become caught in the ureter, bladder or urethra. Their size can range from that of a grain of sand to a golf ball. 

Kidney stone symptoms and complications

Kidney stones are notoriously painful, but a person can live with stone disease and be symptomless for years, says Dr. Mann.

“They can cause symptoms if they drop down and block the tube that normally drains the kidney,” he explains. “It can cause severe pain.”

Symptoms include:

  • Blood in the urine

  • Burning sensation when urinating 

  • Cloudy or odorous urine

  • Fever and chills

  • Frequent urination

  • Intense, sharp pain in the back or side that doesn’t go away

  • Nausea 

  • Vomiting

While most kidney stones cause no lasting damage, if a stone-related infection occurs, it can be life-threatening.

Kidney stone risk factors

Approximately one in six people will experience kidney stones in their lifetime – and many will have more than one occurrence.

“If you get a kidney stone, you’re classified as a kidney stone former,” says Dr. Mann. “You have a 50 percent chance of having another stone within five years.”

Kidney stones can be hereditary or they can be caused by other factors, such as:

Kidney stone treatment

“Stones are treated different ways, depending on their composition,” says Dr. Mann.

A uric acid stone, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of stone disease cases, can be dissolved by alkalinizing the urine with medication. Other stones need to be removed, which can involve one of the following methods:

  • Fragmenting the stone through sound waves so it can easily pass during urination 

  • Surgery to remove the stone 

“More than half of people are going to be able to pass their stones,” says Dr. Mann. “If a stone is 5 millimeters or less in size and it’s in the tube obstructing the kidney, typically we’ll give that person a period of observation.”

Physicians can prescribe pain relievers and medication that promotes dilation in the tube to help it pass.

When to see a doctor about a kidney stone

“If this is a patient’s first episode of pain, usually they are quite frightened because the pain is so severe,” he says. “They may think they’re dying or have no idea what’s going on.”

People who have previously experienced kidney stones are familiar with the type of pain. Regardless, if you have severe pain of any kind, you need to see your doctor.

“It’s a good idea to go ahead and seek medical attention when you’re having that first pain because the pain could be from something else,” says Dr. Mann. “It’s important to have that correct diagnosis because if it’s another condition, that condition may need to be treated right away.”

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