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What causes kidney stones?

Christine Cristiano hangs her hat in Ontario, Canada. She shares her world with husband, two sons and a beagle named Tessie.

Anatomy of a Kidney Stone

Kidney stones are a common but painful disorder of the urinary tract and account for a large number of doctor's and emergency room visits. According to the National Kidney Foundation, over 1 million Americans are treated for kidney stones each year. For reasons unknown, the incident of kidney stones has been steadily increasing over the years, and more prevalent in Caucasian men over 40 years and people who live in hotter climates although women can also develop kidney stones. Furthermore, recent reports indicate that the incidence of kidney stones in children is also rising due to poor diet and obesity.

Kidney Stones

Kidney stones are somewhat of an enigma

The formation of kidney stones is not fully understood but it is thought that some individuals are more susceptible than others including those with a family history.Certain medical conditions also increase the chances of kidney stones forming including sufferers of frequent urinary tract infections, kidney disease, certain metabolic disorders and individuals with renal tubular acidosis — a rare hereditary disease.Individuals at a higher risk of developing kidney stones include those who suffer from chronic inflammation of the bowel, or have had intestinal bypass or ostomy surgery.Dehydration is another key factor that can contribute to the formation of a stone because the minerals naturally present in urine become too concentrated.

Kidney stone 101

A kidney stone consists of calcium oxalate (which is present in the urine naturally), uric acid, cystine or methionine."The kidneys serve as the body's filters. They filter blood and the waste from the blood is passed into the urine," Graciela West, a physician assistant from Connecticut explains. "If the urine is too concentrated, then tiny solid particles can come together and form kidney stones."Some kidney stones are so small that they will pass via the urinary tract system without detection or fanfare however if they become too large, medical intervention is necessary. Larger stones can pose a real health risk because they can block the flow of urine causing the kidney to swell and cause infection and kidney damage. Likewise, if the stone lodges in the ureter, it causes a condition called renal colic, a condition characterized by severe pain.

Kidney stone symptoms

The initial symptoms of the presence of a kidney stone can be mistaken for other medical conditions. Initially, the stone may cause pain in the flank (side of the body between the ribs and hip), side of hip, or side of mid-back with pain radiating to the groin.This pain can be accompanied by nausea or vomiting, progressing into painful urination and foul smelling or bloody urine. In the most severe cases, it may not be possible to urinate because the stone is obstructing the passage of urine. If a fever develops, this may be an indication that an infection is present and prompt medical attention is advisable.

Passing kidney stones

Most kidney stones will pass by themselves but can take up to six weeks to do so. Prescription pain medication may be necessary in the interim, along with adequate bed rest and consuming lots of fluids to keep things moving and to prevent dehydration.If the stone is too big to pass, it may require some minor intervention to break up the stone so it can pass. There are various procedures that can be used to break up the stone including extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy. This procedure breaks up the stone by using shock waves (high intensity ultrasound) that pass through water pouches placed on the skin and directed towards the stone.A cystoscopy is another technique that breaks up the stone by passing a crushing device into the bladder or lower ureter to crush the stone with a laser or pull the stone out. If a stone is too large to break up, surgery is required — a small incision is made on the side of the body, and another incision is made into the ureter or kidney.

How to prevent kidney stones

The best cure for kidney stones is prevention. If you don't have any pre-existing conditions that can contribute to the formation of kidney stones, drink 8 to 10 glasses of water daily to decrease your chances of developing this painful condition."If you pass a stone it is necessary to save it so that the stone can be analyzed," West recommends. "Some stones can be prevented by staying hydrated and following a particular diet." Your doctor can have your kidney stone analyzed to help determine the most appropriate prevention protocol for you.

More on kidney stones

Reasons to ditch diet soda 
Potassium can reduce the formation of kidney stones 
Caffeine, dehydration and kidney stones

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