Imagine a small pebble. But with VERY jagged ends. And now imagine that it is in your kidneys. OUCH! If you have ever passed a kidney stone, I am sure you can still recall the pain and discomfort it brought. Unfortunately, Kidney stones are fairly common, and affect around 5-10% of the world's population. They are becoming more and more common given our lifestyle, eating habits and increasing prevalence of obesity. Fortunately, you can prevent one from even forming, by following our tips and advice, which mostly revolve around a healthy lifestyle. The diagnosis and treatment varies from case to case depending on the size and mineral composition of the stones. In this post, we will explore what kidney stones are, the diagnostic process, and different treatment and prevention options.
What Are Kidney Stones?
Kidney stones are a buildup of salts and minerals inside the kidneys that may eventually work their way out of the body via the urinary tract. Kidney stones can range in size from a tiny speck to as large as a ping-pong ball.
Common symptoms of kidney stones include blood in urine, abdominal pain, or groin pain. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Doctors can test a patient's blood calcium, bone hormone and uric acid levels. While these tests do not specifically check for kidney stones, it will help determine if there is a problem with the kidney function. Sometimes kidney stones can block the outflow from the kidneys and cause kidney failure.
X-Ray and CT Scan
With modern technology, doctors can visually see kidney stones while they are still in the body. They can use a standard abdominal x-ray (called a KUB - Kidney, Ureter, Bladder), or computed tomography (CT) scan to detect even the smallest stones in the kidney.
A lot can be learnt from testing a patient’s urine. With a 24-hour collection, doctors can determine the mineral composition of a patient’s urine and whether it contains stone-forming minerals in excess or a deficit of stone-preventing substances.
Drink the elixir of life - water. And lots of it!
The best way to prevent kidney stones is to stay hydrated throughout the day and urinate frequently. When you are dehydrated, your urine will be more concentrated, allowing minerals and salts to crystallize. Have you ever seen dirt accumulate in a high flow river? No! And now think of a small pond with still water. Lots of ‘stuff’ gets collected. The constant flow of water through your kidneys does not give enough time for minerals to bond and form stones.
It can be beneficial to drink citrus drinks like orange juice and lemonade as they contain citrate which can prevent stones from forming.
Target water intake: 2.5-3 L a day.
Control Your Sodium Intake
This is what you need to know about sodium. Sodium is the new cocaine. We are all (as a population) addicted to it. When you have too much salt in your body, it brings along calcium in the kidney filtration system causing it to accumulate and form calcium kidney stones.
Target sodium intake: 2.4 Gm a day. Now for fun, go read the ‘nutrition facts’ label of the big mac you just ate.
Eat More Calcium
Eat calcium, to prevent calcium stones. Wait. What!? This may sound contradictory to the last point, but eating a calcium-rich diet can actually help lower your chances of developing kidney stones and other health issues. Keep in mind that calcium “supplements” are not included in this as some studies have shown they can actually increase your risk.
Target calcium intake: 1000 mg dietary calcium per day.
If the kidney stones are not too large, doctors will often recommend to hydrate generously and they are passed naturally through urination. Some patients may not seek medical help and choose to tough it out, but the process can be excruciating even for tiny stones.
To ease the pain and make stone passage easier, there are a few medical remedies physicians will prescribe:
For smaller stones, and patients with normal kidney function, doctors will prescribe mild pain relievers such as ibuprofen to reduce the pain caused by passing the stone.
For bigger stones, alpha blockers help to relax the muscles in the ureter which will make the stone pass faster and with less pain.
If the stones are small enough, the only thing left to do is to drink plenty of water (2 to 3 quarts) and flush out the urinary system. It may cause some discomfort, but this is the most natural way to pass a stone.
If the stones are very big or do not pass despite all these measures, surgical consultation is required.