What are kidney stones and how to avoid them

Bajaj Finserv Health Team, Nephrologist
November 19, 2020

Kidney stones are small, yet often immensely painful, deposits that may form anywhere along your bladder, ureters, urethra and kidneys. Kidney stone disease is common in India, with over 1 million cases diagnosed every year. Indian food habits are sometimes a risk factor for kidney stone formation. Kidney stones are treatable, and the issue should resolve within days to weeks. Nevertheless, the pain of passing kidney stones has been likened to that of childbirth and once you develop kidney stones you are at risk of developing them again.

On the other hand, proper hydration, diet, and exercise can greatly help prevent kidney stones. Home remedies too can improve the condition. Given that the prevention and cure of kidney stones remains in your hands to a large degree, it is smart to make an effort to understand the condition, learn if you are at risk, and find out how to overcome it.

Here is a compact guide on kidney stones to set the ball rolling to better health.

What are kidney stones?

Called renal calculi, kidney stones are solid deposits that form from minerals and salts in the urine. When urine contains high levels of these dissolved minerals and salts and too little liquid, crystals form. These crystals, in turn, attract other substances and the solid mass grows bigger. These crystal-forming elements are calcium, oxalate, xanthine, cystine, urate, and phosphate.

Accordingly, the types of kidney stones are:

  • Calcium oxalate stones
  • Calcium phosphate stones
  • Uric acid stones
  • Cystine stones
  • Struvite stones
  • Xanthine stones

Of these, calcium stones are by far the most common, comprising 80% of kidney stones. Once a kidney stone develops, stone pain is not a necessary consequence. The stone can stay within the kidney and cause you no problems. However, if it makes its way to the ureter and fails to be passed out through urine, it will cause urine build-up and ensuing pain.

What causes kidney stones?

Based on how kidney stones form, a few reasons for kidney stones can be singled out. They are:

  • A high level of crystal-forming substances, like calcium and phosphate, in the urine
  • A low amount of fluid to keep the substances dissolved (low urine volume)
  • Lack of substances that halt crystal formation

However, it is not easy to pinpoint a cause for kidney stones as several risk factors play a hand in their formation. For example, here are some risk factors that must be evaluated:

  • Making less than a litre of urine per day
  • Insufficient water intake
  • Loss of body fluids
  • Diet that contains too much salt, oxalate, and animal protein
  • Obesity
  • Intestinal surgery such as gastric bypass surgery
  • Medical conditions such as hyper parathyroid condition
  • Current medication including calcium supplements
  • Being male
  • Prior presence of kidney stones in you or your family

Symptoms of kidney stones

Kidney stone symptoms range from the non-existent and mild to excruciating. Larger kidney stones more often than not cause more pain and symptoms. While symptoms may show up when the stones move within the kidneys, severe pain called renal colic may arise when the stone makes its way through the urinary tract and blocks a part of it.

So, if you have a stone large enough to block your ureter, you may experience renal colic and symptoms such as:

  • Intense, cramping pain along the side, back, and lower abdomen
  • Pain that radiates to the groin, lower back and lower abdomen
  • Waves of sudden pain, of varying degrees
  • Nausea and vomiting

Some other symptoms of kidney stones are:

  • Cloudy urine
  • Foul-smelling urine
  • Feeling of an intense urge to urinate
  • Urinating more often
  • Urinating in small amounts
  • Burning sensation whilst urinating
  • Dark or red urine (blood in urine)
  • Fever and chills

The above along with pain in the lower back, abdomen and side can also be categorised as kidney stone early symptoms. Further, kidney stone symptoms in men include pain at the tip of the penis.

Given the intensity of that kidney stone pain can rise to, it is understandable that you would want to address the condition as soon as any of these early signs surface. However, there is another reason to tend to kidney pain symptoms as soon as they arise. Untreated kidney stones can cause infections and complications such as the narrowing of ureters and kidney disease.

Treatment for kidney stones

The treatment for kidney stones depends on the size of the stones, the symptoms you are experiencing and potential health concerns. Below are some ways to treat kidney stones.

Let the stone pass naturally: Small stones can pass on their own, with adequate water intake (1.8-3.6L/ day), and your doctor may prescribe pain killers to aid the process.

Use medication: Alpha blockers such as Tamsulosin (Flomax) relax the ureter, thus improving the chances of the stone passing, and with less pain too.

Undergo surgery: If the kidney stones are too large to pass naturally, pose the threat of infection, or cause too much pain, your doctor may suggest surgery such as:

  • Ureteroscopy (URS)
  • Percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL)

Opt for Shock Wave Lithotripsy: This medical technique does not require you to undergo surgery and uses shock waves of high energy to break down large kidney stones. It is called SWL or ESWL.

If these procedures are inadequate or do not work, doctors will evaluate other surgeries and medical techniques.

Once cured of kidney stones, your next task is to avoid getting them again, and this is something you are at risk of. In general, too, preventing the occurrence of kidney stones is better than trying to cure the condition.

Thankfully, there are lifestyle changes you can incorporate from the get-go. To start with, you need to pass 2-2.5L of urine a day, and this means drinking sufficient amounts of water. But, depending on the type of kidney stone you have you may have to drink more water. Cutting down your sodium intake, consuming less animal protein and toning down on oxalate-rich food are also tactics to employ.

However, while trying to prevent kidney stones you may run into all sorts of nutrient deficiencies if you make drastic modifications of your diet by yourself. A safer bet is to get a general physician and possibly a dietician on board. You can do this easily with the Bajaj Finserv Health app. It gives you instant access to relevant doctors and provides easy means to carry out consultations. For instance, you can find a doctor online, book a virtual consultation and find out if the symptoms you are facing correspond to the kidney stone pain area or not. You can then book a doctor appointment online for a diagnosis at the doctor’s clinic. To get the Bajaj Finserv Health app, simply download it from Google Play or the Apple App Store.

Now that you understand kidney stones, kidney stone symptoms and how you can prevent the occurrence of kidney stones, make every effort to live healthy and keep your kidneys happy!