Understanding kidney stones

Posted on 2 October 2012

Our expert Dr Rupert Rencken answers your questions about kidney stones.

I’ve had excruciating pain in my lower back and side for the past couple of days and urination is painful. What could be wrong?
You might have developed a kidney stone, which is essentially a large salt crystal. A kidney stone usually causes a sudden, severe pain in the side. Although urination is painful, a kidney stone seldom affects the passing of urine.

Should I see my doctor about a kidney stone or will it go away on its own?
If you have severe pain in the side and painful urination, you should certainly see your doctor. Some stones pass out by themselves and the pain will be relieved as suddenly as it occurred. But if the stone remains stuck in the kidney pipe, the pain will return until the stone is removed.

Why do kidney stones form?
The main reason for kidney stones forming is dehydration, which causes the urine to become concentrated with salts. Dietary factors seldom play a large role in stone formation.

Are all kidney stones the same?
Kidney stones forming from calcium salts (calcium oxalate) or uric acid (urate stones) are the most common types among patients. Many patients experience the forming of multiple stones. However, only the stones that are causing a blockage cause pain; small stones sitting in the kidney often give no indication of their presence.

How can kidney stones be treated?
Treating kidney stones is one of the success stories of modern medicine. If one is unable to pass the stone, there are a number of ways to clear the stones. For example, stones can be broken up using a laser inserted via the bladder, with shock-wave treatment administered through the skin, or with minimally invasive surgery. This usually involves an overnight stay in hospital. The good news is that 99% of patients who undergo an operation for kidney stones require no cuts or stitches on the body.

How can I prevent kidney stones from forming?
The most important preventative measure is to increase your fluid intake. This sounds easier than it is. You need to get into the habit of drinking more than your thirst is telling you to. The best liquid to drink is water but as long as you drink a mixture of fluids, the end result will be an increased urine output. The easiest way to know if you’re drinking enough is to look at the colour of your urine: if the urine is like water or light yellow, you are drinking enough; if the urine is dark yellow or orange, you are relatively dehydrated and need to drink more. In some patients, further tests are required if increased fluid intake is not successful in preventing new stones from forming.

Are kidney stones equally common among women and men?
Kidney stones form almost three times as often in men than in women. The reasons are not very clear, but it may be related to poorer intake of fluids by most men. Acid stones are more common in men who suffer from gout because of an increased amount of uric acid in their blood and urine.

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The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

Published in Endocrinology

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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