woman holding up kidney stone models in position


They can be PAINFUL!

Passing a kidney stone is often described as one of the most painful experiences a person can have. Some liken the intensity of the pain to what women experience in labor. If you’ve had one, then you’re at risk of having more in the future. 


Common symptoms of kidney stones are described as sharp, cramping pain in the mid-back and side. This pain can move to the lower abdomen and groin and come in waves as your body tries to dispel the stone. 

Other signs of a kidney stone include:

  • A feeling of intense need to urinate
  • Urinating more often or a burning feeling during urination
  • Urine that is dark or red due to blood. 
  • Sometimes the urine has only small amounts of red blood cells that can’t be seen with the naked eye and is seen on a urinalysis
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • For men, you may feel pain at the tip of the penis

What are Kidney Stones Made of?

Okay, they’re not really stones, they are microscopic-sized crystals. Think about how jagged a crystal can be with spikes of minerals jutting out. Well, now imagine a tiny crystal trying to make its way down the very teeny tiny tubes of the urinary tract. When one of the spikes gets stuck, we feel it as excruciating pain. 

The size of a kidney stone can vary from being as large as a pea to as small as a grain of rice or grain of sand. Also called renal calculus pathology, they are hard deposits made of minerals and salts that form inside your kidneys. 

How the Kidney Works 

Our kidneys are organs that come in pairs; like lungs, eyes, and ovaries. Although you can live with one kidney the second one is not a “spare,” both are necessary for our bodies to function at their best. These organs perform a lot of amazing chemistry for us as they clean waste products from our blood and control our levels of sodium, potassium, and calcium, and other minerals. And, making urine or pee is a complex job. When the chemistry is off, kidney stones can be the result.

Causes and Risk Factors

Chronic dehydration which results in low urine volume is a major cause of kidney stones. Sweating from hard exercise, saunas, living in a hot climate, and alcohol use can all contribute to dehydration. When urine is dark in color it is more concentrated and there is less volume to dissolve the salts. 

Adults should drink 2-3 quarts of liquid or 8-12 cups per day to produce a good amount of urine. Water is best, try to avoid sodas. This is so you urinate frequently to avoid any build-up of calcium or uric acid. 

Here are other conditions that influence the creation of kidney stones:

  • Diet high in sodium 

Calcium in the urine can’t really be lowered effectively by you eating fewer dairy products which are good for bone health. Instead, work with your healthcare professional to lower the amount of salt in your diet. Too much salt in the diet is a risk factor for calcium stones. This is because too much salt is passing into the urine, keeping calcium from being reabsorbed from the urine and into the blood. Reducing salt in the diet lowers urine calcium, making it less likely for calcium stones to form.

  • Diet high in oxalate

Because oxalate is a component of the most common type of kidney stone (calcium oxalate), eating foods rich in oxalate can raise your risk of forming these stones. Unfortunately, these are usually nutrient-rich foods such as peanuts, rhubarb, spinach, beets, chocolate (oh no!), and sweet potatoes. The average person should not cut back on these healthy foods as a preventative. If you have had kidney stones your healthcare provider may suggest limiting them. 

  • A diet high in animal protein

Too much meat in your diet and not enough fruits and vegetables create high acid levels making it easier for calcium oxalate and uric acid stones to form. The breakdown of meat into uric acid also raises the chance of both calcium and uric acid stones. 

  • Being overweight 

Obesity may change the acid levels in the urine, leading to stone formation.

  • Heredity and genetics 

They play a role. If a close family member is prone to stones, then it is more likely your body’s chemistry will be similar and also not as effective at preventing stones from occurring. 

  • Chronic diarrhea 

Certain bowel conditions that cause diarrhea (such as Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis) or surgeries (such as gastric bypass surgery) can raise the risk of forming calcium oxalate kidney stones.

  • Type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar) 

Diabetes can increase the acidity of your urine, and acidic urine increases the risk of kidney stones.

  • Gout 

People with gout have a higher risk for uric acid stone formation due to low urine pH, and of developing uric acid kidney stones because they have a higher level of uric acid being excreted by the kidneys along with the more acidic urine. 

Types of Kidney Stones

Treatment and prevention depend on what kind you have. Here are the different types:

Calcium stones (80 percent of stones)

Calcium stones are the most common type of kidney stone. There are two types of calcium stones: calcium oxalate (a natural chemical found in most foods) and calcium phosphate. Calcium oxalate is by far the most common type of calcium stone. Some people have too much calcium in their urine, raising their risk of calcium stones, but even with normal amounts of calcium, this type of stone may form from other causes. 

Uric acid stones (5-10 percent of stones)

Uric acid is a waste product that comes from chemical changes in the body. Uric acid crystals do not dissolve well in acidic urine and instead will form a uric acid stone. 

Cystine stones (less than 1 percent of stones)

Cystine is an amino acid that is in certain foods; it is one of the building blocks of protein. Cystinuria (too much cystine in the urine) is a rare, inherited metabolic disorder. It is when the kidneys do not reabsorb cystine from the urine. When high amounts of cystine are in the urine, it causes stones to form. Cystine stones often start to form in childhood.


Sometimes kidney stones are formed and pass without being painful at all. These are often noticed in an X-ray during an exam for something unrelated. But sudden pain or blood in their urine is what usually sends people in for medical attention. Imaging tests such as an ultrasound or CT scan may be used to diagnose a kidney stone and determine is size and location.  


This depends on the type and size of the stone and how long you have had it. Do talk to your healthcare provider to get all your options. Here are the usual possibilities:

  • Wait it Out 

Most smaller stones will pass on their own. This can take days, weeks, or more than a month, and is considered safe as long as there is no blockage of the kidney. 

  • Medication

Medications are sometimes prescribed to help the stone pass. One is tamsulosin. Tamsulosin (Flomax) relaxes the ureter, making it easier for the stone to pass. You may also be prescribed pain and anti-nausea medicine as you wait to pass the stone.

  • Surgery

      Surgery might be needed if:

  • The stone fails to pass
  • The patient is in too much pain to wait 
  • The stone is affecting kidney function (blocking urine) or causing infection

Today surgeries to remove stones are minimally invasive and require little or no recovery time.

Commonly used is Shock Wave Lithotripsy (SWL). With this procedure high-energy shock waves targeting the stone break it into very tiny pieces so that can then easily pass in the urine.  

And I want to leave you with this, even though it is no laughing matter. Jeff Foxworthy on this fact of life: “You do not want a kidney stone…”

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