Kidney stones have been a bane for humanity since recorded history. They are reported to be one of the single most painful conditions anyone can experience. Nine percent of the population will suffer with them at some point in their lives. Why do they occur, and what can you do to avoid being one of the sufferers? Read on….
The medical term for kidney stone is “renal calculus”. Over 80% of the time, renal calculi are made up of calcium. Anything that increases the concentration of calcium in the urine worsens the risk of developing this agonizing condition. The single most important thing anyone can do to limit stone formation is to drink more water. Ideally, taking in at least 3 liters of water daily is advised. Fluids that function as diuretics, such as coffee and alcohol, are NOT helpful.
Taking calcium supplements unnecessarily also worsens kidney stone risk. For quite a while, it was assumed by the medical community that taking these minerals would help strengthen bones. However, scientific studies have debunked this theory and instead have confirmed that people taking 1000 mg or more of calcium have a markedly higher rate of stones. There is also felt to be a small worsening of outcome in folks who take a lot of vitamin C–the acid load causes the kidneys to release more calcium into the urine, and calculus formation begins.
Dietary factors affect kidney stone risk as well. High protein diets result in extra acids in the blood stream, which prompt more calcium to be pumped into the urine, similar to the effect of Vitamin C. Phosphoric-acid-containing sodas (mainly the colas) worsen the scenario in a similar way and should be avoided. And of course, as with most things medical, there is a genetic component to kidney stone risk–individuals with family members who have them are significantly more likely to develop them themselves, so following the ideal hydration and nutrition strategy is critical.
Less commonly (but just as painfully), kidney stones may be made of uric acid or struvite. Uric acid is the crystal that settles in tissues and causes the severe pain of gout. The same things that can bring on a gout attack in the joints–dehydration, high fat diet, lots of purine in the diet–can promote development of uric acid calculi. In this instance, medication to help the body rid itself of uric acid can prevent stone formation. This medicine is called allopurinol; physicians can easily determine if it would be useful by simple urine and blood tests.
Recurrent urinary tract infections are the cause of struvite stones. Early diagnosis and thorough treatment of kidney infections markedly reduces the likelihood that they will develop.
The pain of a kidney stone is singularly intense. Typical it occurs in the flank(mid-back) ; it may radiate down and to the midline. It is common to have bloody urine, as well. Surprisingly, despite the symptom severity, little damage is done by these little rocks as they pass down through the urinary system. Once they finish the long, torturous journey through the ureters, which are the delicate tubes connecting the kidneys to the bladder, the pain usually subsides. Extra fluid (many times given intravenously in the emergency room) and muscle relaxers help dilate the ureters and speed up stone passage. Analyzing the stone helps doctors compose the best prevention strategy, so straining the urine during and after a renal calculus attack is recommended. Many times, however, the stones dissolve once they get to the bladder.
Some stones never even leave the kidneys. Unless they are very large, they are harmless and best left alone. For those that start to travel down the ureters but get stuck, removal is essential or else the blocked urine flow will damage the kidney “upstream”. Pulverizing the stone using sound waves, call lithotripsy, is a safe and effective procedure. When it is not possible or successful, surgical removal of the stone, frequently followed by “stenting” (placement of a tiny tube to keep the irritated ureter wide open) is needed.
Avoiding pain and surgical intervention are crucial elements to leading a happy and healthy life. Drinking plenty of water, avoiding dietary overload of protein and fat, and eschewing unnecessary supplements can improve everyone’s chance of achieving these goals, so watch what you put in your body! And should you have a family history of kidney stones, or have already had one yourself, be sure your doctor is aware so they can work with you to see if medication is indicated.