Kidney stones are concentrated deposits of minerals and salts that can form, unsurprisingly, within the kidneys.
The early signs of a kidney stone’s movement vary slightly from the symptoms of passing a kidney stone, so it’s important to keep these differences in mind when talking to a doctor. Before we get into that, however, let’s handle some basic explanations.
What Is a Kidney Stone?
A kidney stone is a concentrated mass of minerals and acid salts that accumulate in the kidneys. Basically, any substance capable of crystallizing can potentially form a kidney stone, though calcium is the usual culprit.
If your urine has more of these substances than normal, or if your urine lacks the normal ability to keep the crystals from sticking together, a kidney stone can potentially form.
A kidney stone does not normally cause symptoms simply by sitting in the kidneys (1). However, stones can sometimes move through the ureter towards the bladder and begin causing issues, depending on certain factors.
The symptoms of passing a kidney stone in men, for instance, can sometimes be affected by prostate size. Other factors include the actual size of the person, whether they have been able to pass kidney stones in the past, and the size of the stone itself.
Roughly 10% of the population will experience kidney stones. Men are at higher risk than women, with 19% of men experiencing one over the course of their lives compared to nine percent of women.
The Kidney Stone Pain Location
When a stone begins the journey from your kidney to the bladder—through your ureter—you will likely start noticing pain. The pain will be quite severe and come in waves on the side and back below the ribs, before moving on to the lower abdomen and groin. You’ll also experience bouts of pain during urination.
Early Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Stones
If you have a kidney stone, early symptoms usually develop when either an infection arises or the stone becomes lodged in your kidney or ureter.
The following eight early signs and symptoms are most common:
One of the main symptoms of a kidney stone is pain (2). As the kidney stone passes through the ureter, it can form an obstruction. This creates a buildup of urine and stretches the passageway.
This stretching triggers a set of nerve fibers that detect injury, and the result of this process is what is commonly described as one of the most painful sensations possible. The pain of a kidney stone can come in waves, radiate, or fluctuate in intensity, but is usually tied to the location of the stone itself.
This means the pain can appear along the flank or lower back but is capable of moving as the stone travels. Pain may also be felt when trying to urinate and can sometimes appear without any warning.
2. Vomiting and/or Nausea
The nerves involved in the pain of a urinary obstruction are also tied to nearby organs that form part of the gastrointestinal tract. As the nerves react to the kidney stone, they can stimulate the GI organs by proximity. This connection is one possible explanation for why nausea and vomiting sometimes appear during kidney stone cases.
Also known as blood in the urine, hematuria happens because kidney stones are rather jagged objects that are being passed through a series of tubes used to handling only liquids.
Depending on how long the stone has been lodged, there may also be swelling that exacerbates the problem. Hematuria can result in pink, red, or even brown urine depending on how much blood is present.
Hyperuria is the need to frequently urinate. Whether due to the kidney stone nearing the end of the urethra or due to the buildup of urine behind it, you are going to feel the need to pee more than normal. This does not necessarily mean you will actually end up urinating, just that you will feel a recurrent need to.
Depending on how the kidney stone is obstructing the urethral passage, you may only be able to urinate small amounts at a time or could find yourself able to urinate normally, albeit possibly painfully.
5. Hard Time Sitting
As pain builds, you may notice difficulty when sitting or lying down. These positions add additional pressure to the area, and may even be what alerts you to the problem.
6. Fever and Chills
In some cases, kidney stones may not lead to physical pain but may show up through other symptoms. If you’re noticing unexplained fevers or chills in addition to pelvic pain or urine discoloration, it may mean a urinary tract infection.
A kidney stone—regardless of how small it is—has the potential to tear the walls of the urinary tract and pave the way for infection.
7. Swelling in the Abdominal Area
Another symptom of kidney stones could be swelling in the kidney and abdominal area. In these cases, the kidney stone has likely impeded the flow of urine out of the body. This can lead to a number of problems, and a doctor should be alerted immediately if you’re experiencing this symptom.
8. Burning Sensation While Urinating
When a kidney stone is about to exit the ureter and make its way into the bladder, excoriating burning can occur during urination. Unfortunately, this is likely to occur until the kidney stone passes. A urinary tract infection can also produce this feeling, so get a proper diagnosis from your doctor.
Kidney Stones Can Lead to Kidney Infection
If the kidney stone causes urine to remain in the kidneys, it’s possible for bacteria to breed and cause an infection. Kidney infection symptoms sometimes overlap with those of a kidney stone, but the ones that definitely indicate infection are foul-smelling urine, cloudy urine, or a fever and chills.
Incidentally, bladder infections are not normally associated with kidney stones, because if a kidney stone is able to travel along the ureter into the bladder, then it should be able to leave the bladder as well without creating a blockage. And for that matter, gallstone symptoms are also unrelated.
Types of Kidney Stones
There are four main types of kidney stones, and the type you have will determine treatment. The types are:
Calcium Stones: These include calcium oxalate stones, the most common form of kidney stone, and calcium phosphate stones. The calcium taken from food does not increase your chances of developing a stone; rather, it’s the excess calcium excreted by bones into the kidney.
Uric Acid Stones: These stones occur when your urine features too much acid. Eating a lot fish, shellfish, and meat can boost uric acid levels.
Struvite Stones: These stones can grow and progress quickly, and are the result of a urinary tract infection.
Cystine Stones: These stones are hereditary and the result of a condition called cystinuria. The condition causes the amino cystine to leak into the kidneys.
Who Is at Risk of Developing Kidney Stones?
There are multiple groups at risk for kidney stones. As mentioned earlier, men have a higher risk than women. Obese people are also at a higher risk, as are those who don’t stay adequately hydrated. Other special groups at increased risk include those with:
- IBD or long-lasting bowel inflammation
- Cystic kidney disease
- Regular UTIs
- Renal tubular acidosis
- Illnesses being treated with diuretics, calcium-based antacids, and certain HIV/AIDs and seizure medications
How to Treat a Kidney Stone
The only way to cure a kidney stone is to get it out of your body. Until this happens (regardless of how), the main objective is treatment for the symptoms of the kidney stone.
There are very few natural remedies for kidney stones and medicinal or medical help is something even the most stalwart naturalist may want to rely on, depending on how bad the pain becomes.
The movement of urine helps keep the kidney stone from becoming too lodged and speeds its journey out of your body. Drinking enough water to produce clear urine is advisable when dealing with a kidney stone. You can also try mixing in some lemon juice since the acid in lemon is thought to help break up calcium-based kidney stones.
Alcohol is heavily discouraged when dealing with a kidney stone. Although alcohol can make you urinate, the sugars in it can aggravate your symptoms and cause more hassle than you need.
Your doctor may prescribe something called an alpha-blocker. This is a type of drug that relaxes the smooth muscles in the body such as those in the urinary tract. Alpha blockers can help make it easier for the kidney stone to pass along (3).
Targeted medications also exist that can break up or promote the passage of kidney stones based on their composition.
If a kidney infection is suspected, you may also be given antibiotics. Painkillers can significantly help as well, but should be taken in accordance with a doctor’s direction.
3. Shockwave Lithotripsy
This is a treatment used to deal with larger kidney stones as they approach the lower third of the ureter. Basically, a machine sends high-pressure sound waves through your body that are meant to cause the larger kidney stones to break apart into smaller ones that are more easily passed.
This is the closest thing to a hands-on approach you can get when dealing with a kidney stone (short of surgery). A uretoscope is a long tube that gets inserted up the urethra, through the bladder, and up to the ureter—the last obstacle before a kidney stone can be considered able to pass safely.
If possible, an inflatable basket may be used to net the kidney stone and remove it. If this is not manageable, a laser might be employed to break up the stone into more passable fragments.
5. Percutaneous Nephrolithotomy
This is like a ureteroscopy except the tube enters through your side and goes right into the kidney to break up a stone, drain excess urine, or both. A nephrolithotomy is a more invasive procedure and may require a short-term hospital stay afterward.
This is not necessarily a treatment option, but it warrants mentioning. Even if you are able to pass a kidney stone without medical help (which can and does happen), urinating through a strainer to catch the stone can let you bring it to a doctor for analysis.
Examining and testing the stone can help determine its nature and possible underlying causes. This information in turn can help form strategies to prevent a reoccurrence in the future.
Strictly speaking, something as simple as a pasta strainer can work for this but you should clean it thoroughly afterward.
When to See a Doctor
The symptoms of a kidney stone overlap with several different medical problems, all of which are usually a reason to be concerned. Even if you have already been diagnosed with a kidney stone, seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following:
- Your pain becomes intense enough that you can’t sit still or get comfortable.
- The pain is accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
- There is blood in your urine.
- You are unable to pass any urine.
- The pain comes with fever and chills.
Kidney Stone Early Warning Signs
If you suspect you have a kidney stone on the way, take a trip to the doctor to have it assessed. No matter what, it’s probably going to cause some pain for a little while. Unless it is a big stone requiring surgery, it will pass through your system naturally. So, drink plenty of water and expect some serious discomfort.
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