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Kidney stones are a common problem for adults. The National Kidney Foundation estimates that one in 10 people will have a kidney stone at some point in their lives. They occur more often in men than women.

Kidney stones often pass through the urinary tract undetected. But sometimes, you need to see a doctor for kidney stone diagnosis and treatment.

What Are Kidney Stones?

Kidney stones are hard, irregularly-shaped objects that form out of crystallized substances in the urine. The most common type is calcium oxalate stones.

If calcium and oxalate combine in the urine, they can form kidney stones, especially if there’s not enough liquid. That’s why it’s especially important to drink lots of water if you’re prone to kidney stones.

Sometimes the stones stay in the kidneys, but often they travel down the urinary tract. Smaller stones may pass out of the body with no problem.

But if they get stuck in the urinary tract, kidney stones can cause blockages. These blockages can cause urine to back up into the kidneys, bladder, ureter, or urethra. Both the backup of urine and the irritation of the stone itself can cause excruciating pain.

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Kidney Stone Symptoms

Kidney stones range in size from a grain of sand to the size of a golf ball. The bigger the stone, the more problems it causes. Signs that you have a kidney stone include:

  • Sudden, sharp pain in your lower back or side (also called flank pain).
  • An intense stomachache.
  • A burning sensation when you urinate.
  • Bloody urine.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Fever and chills.
  • In men, pain in the testicles.

How Are Kidney Stones Diagnosed?

If you think you have a kidney stone, you should see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Your provider will perform a physical exam, where they’ll ask about your medical history and any conditions you have that can lead to kidney stones. They’ll also ask about your family history, diet, and symptoms.

Your doctor may use the following tests for kidney stone diagnosis.

  • Urinalysis. A lab worker will test your urine. Urinalysis will show if your urine has blood and minerals in it. It can also rule out a urinary tract infection, which causes some of the same symptoms as kidney stones.
  • Blood tests. A blood sample will show if you have high levels of the minerals (like calcium) that lead to kidney stones.
  • X-rays. Your doctor will order X-rays that show the kidney, ureters, and bladder. The X-rays help find kidney stones or other abnormalities in the area.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans. This imaging test uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to make images of your urinary tract. It shows the details of bones, muscles, fat, and organs.
  • Abdominal ultrasound. This test uses sound waves that bounce off the kidney. It then sends a picture of the kidney to a video screen. A technician can then determine the size, shape, and location of any kidney stones.
  • Lab analysis of passed stones. Your doctor may ask you to strain your urine to catch the stone as it passes. They will analyze any stone to determine what caused it. That may reduce your chance of getting future kidney stones.
  • Urine collection. Your doctor may ask you to collect your urine for 24 hours after the stone has passed. They can then check your urine for minerals to help pinpoint what caused the kidney stone.

Kidney Stone Treatment

Depending how severe your condition is, your doctor may recommend the following treatments for kidney stones.

  • Drinking lots of water. For smaller stones, simply increasing your fluid intake can help the stone pass.
  • Changing your diet. Your doctor may recommend reducing the amount of salt and animal protein you eat. They may also recommend adjusting the amount of calcium and oxalate in your diet.
  • Medication. Your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxer to help pass the stone. They may also suggest that you take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen.
  • Surgery. Your doctor may have to remove bigger stones with surgery. There are different kinds of surgery for kidney stones, including non-invasive options.

Are Other Problems Mistaken for Kidney Stones?

It’s important to see a doctor for kidney stone diagnosis. Other conditions can cause symptoms similar to those of kidney stones, like nausea, vomiting, and severe flank pain.

Some of these other conditions are:

If you’re in extreme pain, see blood in your urine, or have difficulty urinating, head straight to the emergency room.

Urology Care Foundation, Kidney Stones, Link

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Diagnosis of Kidney Stones, Link

National Kidney Foundation, Kidney Stones, Link

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.