Learn about the symptoms, risks, causes and treatment of this often intensely painful condition.
Kidney stones (also called renal calculi, nephrolithiasis or urolithiasis) are hard deposits made of minerals and salts that form inside your kidneys.
Diet, excess body weight, some medical conditions, and certain supplements and medications are among the many causes of kidney stones. Kidney stones can affect any part of your urinary tract — from your kidneys to your bladder. Often, stones form when the urine becomes concentrated, allowing minerals to crystallize and stick together.
Passing kidney stones can be quite painful, but the stones usually cause no permanent damage if they're recognized in a timely fashion. Depending on your situation, you may need nothing more than to take pain medication and drink lots of water to pass a kidney stone. In other instances — for example, if stones become lodged in the urinary tract, are associated with a urinary infection or cause complications — surgery may be needed.
Your doctor may recommend preventive treatment to reduce your risk of recurrent kidney stones if you're at increased risk of developing them again.
Kidney stones form in your kidneys. As stones move into your ureters — the thin tubes that allow urine to pass from your kidneys to your bladder — signs and symptoms can result. Signs and symptoms of kidney stones can include severe pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills and blood in your urine.
A kidney stone usually will not cause symptoms until it moves around within the kidney or passes into one of the ureters. The ureters are the tubes that connect the kidneys and bladder.
If a kidney stone becomes lodged in the ureters, it may block the flow of urine and cause the kidney to swell and the ureter to spasm, which can be very painful. At that point, you may experience these symptoms:
Other signs and symptoms may include:
Pain caused by a kidney stone may change — for instance, shifting to a different location or increasing in intensity — as the stone moves through your urinary tract.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs and symptoms that worry you.
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience:
Kidney stones often have no definite, single cause, although several factors may increase your risk.
Kidney stones form when your urine contains more crystal-forming substances — such as calcium, oxalate and uric acid — than the fluid in your urine can dilute. At the same time, your urine may lack substances that prevent crystals from sticking together, creating an ideal environment for kidney stones to form.
Knowing the type of kidney stone you have helps determine its cause, and may give clues on how to reduce your risk of getting more kidney stones. If possible, try to save your kidney stone if you pass one so that you can bring it to your doctor for analysis.
Types of kidney stones include:
Calcium stones. Most kidney stones are calcium stones, usually in the form of calcium oxalate. Oxalate is a substance made daily by your liver or absorbed from your diet. Certain fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts and chocolate, have high oxalate content.
Dietary factors, high doses of vitamin D, intestinal bypass surgery and several metabolic disorders can increase the concentration of calcium or oxalate in urine.
Calcium stones may also occur in the form of calcium phosphate. This type of stone is more common in metabolic conditions, such as renal tubular acidosis. It may also be associated with certain medications used to treat migraines or seizures, such as topiramate (Topamax, Trokendi XR, Qudexy XR).
Factors that increase your risk of developing kidney stones include:
If your doctor suspects that you have a kidney stone, you may have diagnostic tests and procedures, such as:
Imaging. Imaging tests may show kidney stones in your urinary tract. High-speed or dual energy computerized tomography (CT) may reveal even tiny stones. Simple abdominal X-rays are used less frequently because this kind of imaging test can miss small kidney stones.
Ultrasound, a noninvasive test that is quick and easy to perform, is another imaging option to diagnose kidney stones.
Treatment for kidney stones varies, depending on the type of stone and the cause.
Most small kidney stones won't require invasive treatment. You may be able to pass a small stone by:
Kidney stones that are too large to pass on their own or cause bleeding, kidney damage or ongoing urinary tract infections may require more-extensive treatment. Procedures may include:
Using sound waves to break up stones. For certain kidney stones — depending on size and location — your doctor may recommend a procedure called extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL).
ESWL uses sound waves to create strong vibrations (shock waves) that break the stones into tiny pieces that can be passed in your urine. The procedure lasts about 45 to 60 minutes and can cause moderate pain, so you may be under sedation or light anesthesia to make you comfortable.
ESWL can cause blood in the urine, bruising on the back or abdomen, bleeding around the kidney and other adjacent organs, and discomfort as the stone fragments pass through the urinary tract.
Surgery to remove very large stones in the kidney. A procedure called percutaneous nephrolithotomy (nef-row-lih-THOT-uh-me) involves surgically removing a kidney stone using small telescopes and instruments inserted through a small incision in your back.
You will receive general anesthesia during the surgery and be in the hospital for one to two days while you recover. Your doctor may recommend this surgery if ESWL is unsuccessful.
Using a scope to remove stones. To remove a smaller stone in your ureter or kidney, your doctor may pass a thin lighted tube (ureteroscope) equipped with a camera through your urethra and bladder to your ureter.
Once the stone is located, special tools can snare the stone or break it into pieces that will pass in your urine. Your doctor may then place a small tube (stent) in the ureter to relieve swelling and promote healing. You may need general or local anesthesia during this procedure.
Parathyroid gland surgery. Some calcium phosphate stones are caused by overactive parathyroid glands, which are located on the four corners of your thyroid gland, just below your Adam's apple. When these glands produce too much parathyroid hormone (hyperparathyroidism), your calcium levels can become too high and kidney stones may form as a result.
Hyperparathyroidism sometimes occurs when a small, benign tumor forms in one of your parathyroid glands or you develop another condition that leads these glands to produce more parathyroid hormone. Removing the growth from the gland stops the formation of kidney stones. Or your doctor may recommend treatment of the condition that's causing your parathyroid gland to overproduce the hormone.
Prevention of kidney stones may include a combination of lifestyle changes and medications.
You may reduce your risk of kidney stones if you:
Drink water throughout the day. For people with a history of kidney stones, doctors usually recommend drinking enough fluids to pass about 2.1 quarts (2 liters) of urine a day. Your doctor may ask that you measure your urine output to make sure that you're drinking enough water.
If you live in a hot, dry climate or you exercise frequently, you may need to drink even more water to produce enough urine. If your urine is light and clear, you're likely drinking enough water.
Continue eating calcium-rich foods, but use caution with calcium supplements. Calcium in food doesn't have an effect on your risk of kidney stones. Continue eating calcium-rich foods unless your doctor advises otherwise.
Ask your doctor before taking calcium supplements, as these have been linked to increased risk of kidney stones. You may reduce the risk by taking supplements with meals. Diets low in calcium can increase kidney stone formation in some people.
Ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian who can help you develop an eating plan that reduces your risk of kidney stones.
Medications can control the amount of minerals and salts in the urine and may be helpful in people who form certain kinds of stones. The type of medication your doctor prescribes will depend on the kind of kidney stones you have. Here are some examples:
The parathyroid glands lie behind the thyroid. They produce parathyroid hormone, which plays a role in regulating the body's blood level of calcium and phosphorus.
Small kidney stones that don't block your kidney or cause other problems can be treated by your family doctor. But if you have a large kidney stone and experience severe pain or kidney problems, your doctor may refer you to a doctor who treats problems in the urinary tract (urologist or nephrologist).
To prepare for your appointment:
For kidney stones, some basic questions include:
Besides the questions you prepare in advance, don't hesitate to ask any other questions during your appointment as they occur to you.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as: