Kidney stones

Tips for preventing and dealing with this painful condition

athletic couple drinking water

It may begin as a sharp, severe pain in the side and back below the ribs. The pain spreads in waves of varying intensity to the lower abdomen and groin. You may feel nauseated, and urination may not only hurt—it may be discolored or cloudy and smell foul.

As unpleasant as this sounds, these symptoms are an uncomfortable reality for more than one million Americans who suffer from kidney stones each year. And with the hot summer months ahead, the chance for developing kidney stones will be heightened.

Kidney stones—hard deposits of mineral and acid salts ranging in size from a grain of sand to larger than a golf ball—have many causes and can affect any part of your urinary tract, from your kidneys to your bladder. Although kidney stones usually cause no permanent damage, they can be excruciating, says Matthew Pearson, M.D., a urologist for The Austin Diagnostic Clinic (ADC).

“Kidney stones are often cited as one of the most painful conditions a person can experience,” says Dr. Pearson. “But there are other symptoms to be on the lookout for it you think you have kidney stones, such as vomiting, the need to urinate more often, and fever and chills.”

The “stone belt”

Central Texas is one of the most common areas for people to develop kidney stones, says Dr. Pearson. A combination of factors, including warm weather and higher mineral deposits in the water, puts the area in the so-called ‘stone belt’ region, where kidney stones are more prevalent than in other parts of the country. The American Urological Association has noted a connection between warmer temperatures and increased stone formation. Overall, the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse says white males age 40 and older are at greatest risk for developing kidney stones in the United States.

“We may live in the stone belt, but there are still some things you can do to minimize your chances of developing a kidney stone such as eating healthy and getting plenty of exercise,” explains Dr. Pearson. “Drinking at least six to eight glasses of water is another way, and consuming beverages like lemonade can also help because the high amount of citrate in lemonade can greatly reduce kidney stone formation.”

Genes may be a factor

New research suggests there may also be a genetic reason for developing kidney stones. Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis recently reported that a common genetic variation may be why some people are more susceptible to kidney stones than others. The study, published in the April 18 issue of The EMBO Journal (European Molecular Biology Organization), found that mice with a genetic mutation called claudin-14 had a 65 percent greater chance of having a kidney stone.

“This research on mice is very revealing and could help us to one day develop more effective treatments for kidney stones in humans,” says Dr. Pearson. “Fortunately, there already are a few ways to treat kidney stones that do not involve surgery.”

Medication can be prescribed by your doctor to help ease the pain, and drinking plenty of fluids can help pass the stone. But sometimes, additional treatment is required to remove kidney stones, particularly if the stone blocks the urinary tract, or an infection occurs, says Dr. Pearson.

“One popular technique called extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) uses a blast of sound waves to break up a kidney stone,” explains Dr. Pearson. “Another procedure called ureteroscopy uses a special camera and tools placed in the urinary tract to remove the stone or break it up for easier removal.”

Kidney stone causes

Kidney stones develop when waste materials in the urine do not completely dissolve. Each day, the kidneys filter approximately 200 quarts of blood and produce about two quarts of waste products and water, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Over time, deposits of minerals and acid salts can accumulate as stones in the kidney. Eventually, these stones will move through urinary tract and may come out when you urinate.

“The best thing a person can do is to drink lots of water to help avoid developing stones in the first place,” says Dr. Pearson. “If you think you already have a stone, you should talk to your doctor about your treatment options.”