It’s been claimed that the pain from a kidney stone is worse than the pain of giving birth, although men are more likely to develop kidney stones and they can only imagine what the pain of childbirth feels like. My husband has never had a baby, but he can testify that giving birth to a kidney stone is excruciating because he’s been through the agony twice in his life.
But what exactly is a kidney stone? It’s a pebble of varying size made of various minerals that lurks in the kidney or urinary tract. Also known as a renal calculus, it can produce blood in the urine and extreme pain in the abdomen, flank or groin when it tries to exit the body. Approximately 5% of the population should expect to suffer from a kidney stone at some time in his life. Kidney stones may form if there is a decrease in urine volume or too many minerals and chemicals in the urine that can combine to create different kinds of stones. These substances include calcium, oxalate, phosphate, carbonate, uric acid, and cystine. Uric acid stones can result from gout or chemotherapy. Struvite stones can be caused by urinary tract infections. Another cause of kidney stones is obstruction to urine flow.
In my husband’s last kidney stone attack, he had taken a long, strenuous hike in hot weather without hydrating himself. That evening he was doubled over in pain and I rushed him to the emergency room. He was given pain relievers and told to monitor his urine until the stone passed, which it did, and he has not had a recurrence in a number of years. Middle-aged to senior white men like him are at the highest risk for developing kidney stones. Having a family history of stone formation doesn’t help either.
The most dramatic symptom of kidney stones is pain located in the abdomen, flank, back, pelvis and groin, as well as tenderness to touch. The pain may be spasmodic (a common name for it is “renal colic”) and may occur on one or both sides of the body. It tends to be progressive in intensity and generally requires the use of narcotics. There may also be nausea and vomiting as well as painful urination, abnormal urine color, and blood in the urine. Other symptoms include an increased urge to urinate or reduced urine output.
Although kidney stones are not usually life threatening, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor if you experience any symptoms. Be aware that there are so-called “silent” stones that produce no overt symptoms, although you may notice blood in the urine or a fever if an infection is present.
What other risk factors are there for kidney stones? Some conditions that may lead to kidney stones are various kidney diseases, hypercalciuria (too much calcium in the urine), diabetes, hypertension, hyperparathyroidism, inflammatory bowel disease, intestinal bypass surgery, and prematurity of birth in babies. Medicines that can contribute to the formation of kidney stones are diuretics, antacids with calcium, and an HIV drug called indinavir.
If you suspect that you have kidney stones, numerous tests are available to establish their presence, including CT scans, MRIs, x-rays, intravenous pyelograms and ultrasounds. Fortunately, as painful as they can be, kidney stones usually pass out of the body on their own, although medical treatment depends on the type of stone and the severity of symptoms.
What’s the cure for kidney stones? There really isn’t one, but you can keep them at bay by drinking lots of water every day. If your problem is chronic, medications are available that will decrease their formation or break them down, such as antibiotics for struvite stones, diuretics, and solutions that will make the urine more alkaline. Stubborn stones can be removed with surgery or through lithotripsy, which uses shock waves to break them up. If you should experience the painful symptoms of a kidney stone, rest assured that it’s a common and very treatable condition.