What Are Kidney Stones

Yearly in the United States, over 1 million medical visits are made for problems related to kidney stones. But what are kidney stones and how do they form?

“Kidney stones are one of the most, if not the most, painful disorders a person can experience,” says Timothy D. Averch, MD, director of the UPMC Kidney Stone Center.

Kidney stones are masses made up of crystals, commonly calcium and oxalate substances, that form in your urine and build up on the inner lining of your kidneys. Not drinking enough water is the most common cause of kidney stones.

Other risk factors include:

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Kidney stones can be a variety of sizes, textures, and colors. They can be as small as a grain of sand, comparable to the size of a pearl, or as large as golf balls. Kidney stones can be smooth or jagged, and they are typically yellow or brown in color.

The most common symptom of kidney stones is severe pain that starts and goes away suddenly in your flank, side of your back, or down to your groin area. If you are experiencing intense pain in these areas, it is suggested that you seek medical attention so a diagnosis can be made. Other symptoms may include blood in the urine, chills, fever, or nausea and vomiting.

Typical methods of diagnosis include a physical exam, and one or more testing methods, such as:

  • Abdominal CT scan
  • Abdominal x-rays
  • Blood tests
  • Kidney function tests
  • Kidney ultrasound
  • Urinalysis

If you have small stones, you may be sent home because these typically pass through your system on their own. Getting the stone to pass can be painful, so pain medications may be suggested by your doctor. Other medicine may also be given to help the stone pass. You should drink plenty of water in order to produce a large amount of urine to make the passage easier. Your doctor will most likely request that you strain your urine so that the stone can be tested.

Treatments for larger stones will typically involve surgical removal, which is considered a minimally invasive procedure. Certain types of stones, such as those made of uric acid, can often be broken down with medications.

Although painful, kidney stones can be removed without long-term damage. Unfortunately, one incidence increases your future risk for stone recurrence, so an individualized approach aimed at both treatment and prevention is important.

“To go through one kidney stone episode is more than enough; patients shouldn’t have to go through it again,” Dr. Averch says. “This is why we focus on prevention of kidney stones on a patient-by-patient basis, finding the treatment that will work best for the individual.”

About Urology

The UPMC Department of Urology offers a wide variety of specialized care for diseases of the male and female urinary tract and the male reproductive organs, including erectile dysfunction, kidney stones, urinary incontinence, prostate cancer, and more. We have a multifaceted team of physicians and researchers working together to provide the best care to both children and adults. Our team is nationally renowned for expertise in highly specialized technologies and minimally invasive surgical techniques. To find a provider near you, visit our website.