A kidney stone is a hard mass developed from crystals that separate from the urine within the urinary tract. Normally, urine contains chemicals that prevent or inhibit the crystals from forming. These inhibitors do not seem to work for everyone, however, so some people form stones. If the crystals remain tiny enough, they will travel through the urinary tract and pass out of the body in the urine without being noticed.
Kidney stones may contain various combinations of chemicals. The most common type of stone contains calcium in combination with either oxalate or phosphate. These chemicals are part of a person’s normal diet and make up important parts of the body, such as bones and muscles.
A less common type of stone is caused by infection in the urinary tract. This type of stone is called a struvite or infection stone. Another type of stone, uric acid stones, are a bit less common, and cystine stones are rare.
Kidney stones in the kidney, ureter, and bladder. Urolithiasis is the medical term used to describe stones occurring in the urinary tract. Other frequently used terms are urinary tract stone disease and nephrolithiasis. Doctors also use terms that describe the location of the stone in the urinary tract. For example, a ureteral stone—or ureterolithiasis—is a kidney stone found in the ureter. To keep things simple, the general term kidney stones is used throughout this fact sheet.
Gallstones and kidney stones are not related. They form in different areas of the body. Someone with a gallstone is not necessarily more likely to develop kidney stones.
Introduction to the Urinary Tract
The urinary tract, or system, consists of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located below the ribs toward the middle of the back, one on each side of the spine. The kidneys remove extra water and wastes from the blood, producing urine. They also keep a stable balance of salts and other substances in the blood. The kidneys produce hormones that help build strong bones and form red blood cells.
What Are The Symptoms Of Kidney Stones ?
Kidney stones often do not cause any symptoms. Usually, the first symptom of a kidney stone is extreme pain, which begins suddenly when a stone moves in the urinary tract and blocks the flow of urine. Typically, a person feels a sharp, cramping pain in the back and side in the area of the kidney or in the lower abdomen. Sometimes nausea and vomiting occur. Later, pain may spread to the groin.
If the stone is too large to pass easily, pain continues as the muscles in the wall of the narrow ureter try to squeeze the stone into the bladder. As the stone moves and the body tries to push it out, blood may appear in the urine, making the urine pink. As the stone moves down the ureter, closer to the bladder, a person may feel the need to urinate more often or feel a burning sensation during urination.
If fever and chills accompany any of these symptoms, an infection may be present. In this case, a person should contact a doctor immediately.
How Are Kidney Stones Diagnosed ?
Sometimes “silent” stones—those that do not cause symptoms—are found on x rays taken during a general health exam. If the stones are small, they will often pass out of the body unnoticed. Often, kidney stones are found on an x ray or ultrasound taken of someone who complains of blood in the urine or sudden pain. These diagnostic images give the doctor valuable information about the stone’s size and location. Blood and urine tests help detect any abnormal substance that might promote stone formation.
The doctor may decide to scan the urinary system using a special test called a computerized tomography (CT) scan or an intravenous pyelogram (IVP). The results of all these tests help determine the proper treatment.
Kidney Stones Treatment
Prevention is always the preferable way to treat kidney stones. Remaining well hydrated and keeping the urine dilute will help prevent kidney stones from forming.
Those who have never passed a kidney stone may not appreciate the severity of the symptoms. There is little a person can do at home to control the debilitating pain and vomiting that can occur with a kidney stone other than to seek emergency care. If this is the first episode and no previous diagnosis has been established, it is important to be seen by a health-care provider to confirm the diagnosis.
For those who have a history of stones, home therapy may be appropriate. Most kidney stones, given time, will pass on their own, and treatment is directed toward symptom control. The patient should be instructed to consume oral fluids. Ibuprofen may be used as an antiinflammatory medication if there is no contraindication to its use. If further pain medication is needed, the primary-care provider may be willing to prescribe stronger narcotic pain medications.
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