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The Straight Scoop on Kidney Stones

By Krista Elliott

I had slept over at my sister's the night before. Waking up, my lower back was aching like mad. I grumpily told my sister that she needed a new spare mattress, and started getting ready to go about my day. Instead of easing with time, however, the pain got worse. And worse. Eventually, all I could do was gasp out, "Hospital. Now!" 

Driving hell-bent for leather, we got to the ER, where I curled up in a fetal position on the floor, keening like an animal in a trap. After being seen and examined, I had my diagnosis: Kidney stones. 

What are Kidney Stones?

Kidney stones are basically the David to your body's Goliath: They're comparatively tiny, but able to take down even the burliest brute. Small, hard mineral deposits, they form inside your kidneys. They tend to be composed of salts and other minerals found in the urine. Most times, they don't cause problems until they become dislodged within the kidney and/or start to move down the tube connecting your kidneys and your bladder. 

And once they move? Hang on. Kidney stones are considered one of the most painful medical conditions a person can experience, and is often described as being worse than childbirth. And yes, I can vouch for this. 

The most common symptom is severe pain, usually in the flank area. The pain may also be accompanied by blood in the urine, difficulty urinating or a persistent need to urinate, and/or nausea and vomiting. 

That Sounds Horrible! How are They Treated? 

They are horrible, thanks. 

Most kidney stones will pass on their own. You'll be advised to drink plenty of water to help flush them out. You'll also be asked to urinate through a strainer in order to catch the stone so that it can be analyzed and its chemical composition identified. So, you know ... that's fun. In the meantime, you'll likely be prescribed painkillers to help you weather the sensation of trying to push a hedgehog out of your urethra. 

If your stone is more like a boulder, and too large to pass naturally, doctors will usually use sound wave therapy to break the stone into smaller pieces that can then be passed. If a stone is particularly large or problematic, surgery may be considered in order to remove it directly from the kidney. 

So How Do I Prevent Them? 

If you do get one, it's crucial to catch it with the strainer. By identifying its makeup, your doctor can provide a specific plan of action to prevent another one. 

If you've never had one, or if you did but didn't catch your stone, there are still a few general prevention tips: 

  • Drink plenty of water. The more dilute your urine, the smaller the odds of crystals forming. 
  • Lower your salt intake. This will help reduce the amount of sodium in your urine. 
  • Be cautious with calcium. You can still consume plenty of calcium-rich foods, as they have no effect on kidney stones. There is, however, a link between calcium supplements and an increased risk of kidney stones, likely because the calcium from food is more readily used by the body and is less likely to wind up as waste. 

Kidney stones are no picnic, but they tend to be more painful than serious. And with the proper treatment and prevention methods, they can also be blessedly rare events. 

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