Kidney stones

Please note: the information below does not constitute medical advice. If you have any concerns at all, speak to your GP or consultant.

 

 

Approved:  April 2024

 

 

Review date: April 2026

About kidney stones

About kidney stones

Kidney stones are relatively common – affecting about 1 in 10 people in the UK.  Kidney stones are more likely to develop in men than women and typically affect people aged 30-60. Children can develop kidney stones, including infants but kidney stones are much more common in children.

They are usually found in the kidneys or ureter and can be very painful leading in some cases to kidney infections or if left untreated, they may impact the kidneys working properly.

What are kidney stones?

Kidney stones are hard deposits of minerals and salts that form inside your kidneys that form when certain mineral levels become too concentrated in your urine. After a stone forms, it either stays in the kidney or travels down the urinary tract into the ureter. If the stone is relatively small, it typically moves out of the body via the urine without causing any symptoms. However, large unmoving stones may cause a back-up of urine in the urinary system. This is what causes the painful symptoms of kidney stones. Generally, the larger the stone, the more noticeable the symptoms.

Types of kidney stones

There are four types of kidney stones: calcium, uric acid, struvite, and cystine stones.

Calcium stones are the most common type of kidney stone caused by an excess of the essential mineral calcium. They can either occur in the form of calcium oxalate or calcium phosphate. If the  calcium stone is made of calcium oxalate, the kidney stone is likely to be the result of diet, high Vitamin D levels, intestinal bypass surgery or a metabolic disorder. If the calcium stone is made of calcium phosphate, the kidney stone is likely to be the result of a metabolic condition (like renal tubular acidosis) and may be linked to medications used to treat migraines or seizures (e.g. topiramate).

Struvite stones are the result of a UTI (urinary tract infection). They can grow exponentially and become relatively large, occasionally with few symptoms and little warning. Repeated infections can lead to a staghorn calculus, a very large kidney stone that can only be removed by surgery.

Uric acid stones can form in those who consume large amounts of protein (beef, poultry, pork, eggs and fish). Uric acid stones are also linked to certain genetic factors.

Cystine stones are the rarest type of kidney stone and are the result of the hereditary disorder cystinuria which is passed down in families.

Can children get kidney stones?

Children of all ages can develop kidney stones, including infants, but kidney stones are much more common in children. Children are treated for kidney stones in the same way as adults.

Symptoms of kidney stones

Ordinarily, kidney stones do not cause symptoms until they start to move around within the kidney or pass into one of the ureters (the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder). If a kidney stone gets stuck in the ureters, it may cause a back-up of urine in the urinary system. This will cause the kidney to spam and the ureter to spasm, which is what makes kidney stones so painful. If this happens, symptoms might include:

  • Pain that comes and goes in waves and fluctuates in intensity (renal colic)
  • Painful or burning sensation when urinating (dysuria)
  • Severe pain below the ribs
  • Pain around the lower abdomen and groin

Symptoms aside from this may vary:

  • Pink, red or brown urine (hematuria)
  • Cloudy or smelly urine
  • Feeling a constant need to urinate, urinating more frequently than usual or urinating in small amounts
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever and chills (if there is an infection)

Pain caused by a kidney stone may fluctuate. For example, pain may change location or increase/decrease in intensity as the kidney stone passes through your urinary tract.

Causes of kidney stones

Possible causes include dehydration, too much or too little exercise, stomach or intestine surgery (e.g. gastric bypass surgery), consuming food high in sodium or sugars, a diet high in protein and certain supplements and medications (such as Vitamin C, excessive laxative use, calcium-based antacids, certain medications for migraines, depression or seizures etc.). A family history of kidney stones may also be important in some individuals.

Certain health conditions can also put you at a higher risk for kidney stones. Some of these include cystic fibrosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and kidney cysts.

How are kidney stones diagnosed?

Imaging, blood and urine tests may be used to diagnose kidney stones.

  • Urine tests can be tested for blood, stone-forming crystals and signs of infection
  • Imaging can help get an idea of the stone’s size, shape, location. Adults may be offered a CT scan or ultra sound scan for pregnant women
  • Blood tests can be used to check kidney function, detect infections and identify high calcium levels (and other risk factors) that may lead to stone formation
  • Where possible, stones that have passed in the urine may be examined

Treating kidney stones

On average, most kidney stones pass naturally within 31 days but may take up to 45 days. Your healthcare professional may suggest drinking extra fluid to help flush out the stone via the urine. Pain medication may be given to treat symptoms at home.

However, if the kidney stone hasn’t passed within this timeframe, it’s important to seek medical attention which may lead to surgery or soundwaves to break up or remove the stone.

Clinical trials

For general information about clinical trials, including what they are and advice on how to find a clinical trial, click here.

Can kidney stones damage the kidneys?

Can kidney stones damage the kidneys?

Serious complications from kidney stones are rare when addressed early but can be severe if left untreated. If left untreated, stones can cause the kidney to stop working. However, kidney stones in general do increase one’s risk of developing chronic kidney disease as well as increasing one’s risk of developing another kidney stone by 50% within the next 5 to 7 years. Kidney stones may also lead to frequent UTIs in the future.

Preventing kidney stones

Drinking water is the best way to prevent kidney stones. Aim to drink up to 3 litres of water every day.

Healthcare professional may recommend preventive treatment to reduce the risk of recurrent kidney stones if they believe someone is at increased risk of developing them again or suggest a change in diet depending on the type of stones.

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