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Kidney Stone Risk Factors and Treatment Options

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It starts as a dull ache, maybe in your back, or perhaps beneath your rib cage. Suddenly it escalates to severe cramping and then to a piercing pain that leaves you in agony as it radiates into your lower abdomen. If left untreated, kidney stones can lead to an infection, which can evolve into sepsis, a life-threatening blood infection complication. Understand the risk factors that can lead to Kidney stones and how to minimize your risk of developing this painful and dangerous condition.

What are Kidney Stones?

When dissolved minerals buildup on the inner lining of the kidneys, the result can be kidney stones. The collection often consists of calcium oxalate or other components. If the stones remain small, they can pass undetected and unbothersome through the urinary tract. Kidney stones can grow to be as large as a golf ball with sharp, jagged edges. When the stones become large, the process of the stones traveling out of the system can cause extreme pain.

What Causes Kidney Stones?

Kidney stones form when urine contains higher levels of calcium, oxalate, and uric acid than can be diluted by urine fluid. Urine that lacks naturally occurring substances that prevent crystal formation further leads to an increased risk of kidney stone development. There are four types of kidney stones:

  • Calcium Stones: The most common type of kidney stones. Calcium stones are typically comprised of calcium oxalate, a naturally occurring substance found in food, particularly nuts, chocolate, fruits, and vegetables, and created by the liver. A diet high in Vitamin D, some metabolic disorders, and intestinal bypass surgery can increase the presence of calcium or oxalate in the urine.
  • Uric Acid Stones – Uric acid stones are most common among people who fail to drink enough regular fluids or eat a high-protein diet. They can also occur in people who have gout, a disease caused by a reduced ability to metabolize uric acid that results in painful arthritis that is often felt in the feet or that causes chalkstone deposits.
  • Struvite Stones – This variety of kidney stones often forms in response to an infection, particularly a urinary tract infection (UTI).
  • Cystine Stones – These kidney stones most commonly form in response to a hereditary disorder that results in the kidneys excreting too high levels of the amino acid cystinuria.

How to Treat Kidney Stones

If you have any of the above risk factors and believe you may be suffering pain caused by kidney stones, talk to your doctor. He or she will be able to identify the cause and variety of your kidney stones and can help you devise a treatment plan and long-term strategy to avoid kidney stone recurrence.

Most kidney stones are small and will eventually pass through your urinary tract. To expedite the process as painlessly as possible, you can:

  • Drink water. Ideally, drink two to three quarts daily to help flush your urinary tract.
  • Take a pain reliever. Ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or acetaminophen can help mitigate the pain and discomfort that kidney stones cause.
  • An alpha-blocker. Your doctor may prescribe a medication to relax the muscles in your ureter to help you pass the kidney stone quickly and less painfully.

Large stones that cannot pass on their own or may cause kidney or urinary tract damage or infection, or internal bleeding, may require medical intervention. In these cases, a doctor may recommend:

  • Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) – A process that uses sound waves to break up kidney stones into small pieces so that they can pass through the urinary tract.
  • Surgery  – A surgeon may remove large stones using a procedure called percutaneous nephrolithotomy in which he or she will use a small telescope and instruments inserted through a small incision in the lower back.
  • A Scope. A doctor can remove smaller stones by inserting a ureteroscope with a camera through your urethra and bladder into your ureter. 
  • Parathyroid gland surgery. An overactive parathyroid gland is the cause of some kidney stones. Overproduction of parathyroid hormone may be the result of a benign tumor developing on one of the parathyroid glands. Surgery to remove the tumor can help to stop the hormone overproduction.

If you believe you may be suffering from kidney stone pain, don’t wait. Make an appointment with your doctor or walk into an urgent care clinic and get a medical assessment right away. Once you understand the cause of your kidney stone and any complications you may face due to its size, you and your doctor can determine a plan to help you rid your body of the painful stone while minimizing your discomfort.

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