Kidney stones may be painful, but they are rarely a serious health condition if treated properly.
Hard crystalline deposits of salts and minerals inside our kidneys, kidney stones are a condition that affects around one in every 20 people worldwide. They can range from small and unnoticeable to large and bothersome ones that can cause a lot of pain. Although they rarely cause permanent damage if discovered in time, they can cause several complications like kidney infection or abscess formation.
Treating and preventing this condition is typically easy and includes lifestyle changes, home remedies, prescription medication, or surgery in the most severe cases. In this article, we will be explaining how to prevent kidney stones and treat them if you are already afflicted.
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Things to Know About Kidney Stones
Before we can get into the treatment and prevention of kidney stones, let’s go over some important facts about this condition, including causes, risk factors, and common symptoms.
What Causes Kidney Stones?
To learn how we can prevent kidney stones, we first need to know more about what causes them.
Kidney stones develop when there are more crystal-forming substances (oxalate, calcium, uric acid) in our urine that can be diluted. This usually happens when we don’t drink enough water, so the balance between these components gets disrupted and the environment in our urine becomes more acidic.
Kidney Stones Risk Factors
Although there isn’t a single main cause of kidney stones, there are several factors that increase your chances of getting this condition. Here are some of the main risk factors:
- Dehydration– people who drink less than the recommended two liters of water per day are at a higher risk of getting kidney stones. The same goes for people who sweat a lot or live in warmer climates, as they are losing more fluids.
- Certain diets – diets that are high in protein, sugar, and sodium (salt) all leave you at a higher risk of kidney stones. Sodium-rich diets, in particular, can increase the amount of calcium in our kidneys, so they are put under a lot of pressure.
- Personal or family history – you’re more likely to develop kidney stones if they affect one or more of your close relatives. The same goes for personal history – you’re more likely to get kidney stones if you’ve experienced this condition before.
- Obesity – several markers of obesity, including high BMI (body mass index), weight gain, slower metabolism, and large waist size, have all been linked to kidney stones.
Smaller kidney stones can often be present with no symptoms at all – we pass them through our urine without even feeling them. But, even the bigger ones can go unnoticed until they start to move around our kidneys or reach the ureter.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of kidney stones:
- Severe pain in the back and side, right below the ribs;
- Pain in the groin or lower abdomen;
- Painful urination;
- Blood in urine;
- Foul-smelling and cloudy urine;
- Nausea and vomiting;
- Constant need to urinate;
- Passing small amounts of urine.
In addition to these symptoms, you might experience fever and chills if you have developed an infection.
There are several tests your doctor may perform to see if you have kidney stones.
- Blood testing – your doctor may perform a blood test to see if you have too much uric acid or calcium in your bloodstream.
- Urine testing – a urine collection test will show if there are too many minerals in your urine that contribute can to stone formation.
- Imaging – one of the most reliable ways to see if you have kidney stones is to take a look at your abdomen with imaging tests. CT scans can detect very small stones that traditional abdominal X-rays may miss.
- Passed stones analysis – to determine the cause of your stones, your doctor may require you to urinate through a strainer. The stones that get caught will then get analyzed to determine their makeup and create a plan for treatment and prevention.
Kidney Stones Treatment and Prevention
The treatment of kidney stones is usually aimed towards combating the symptoms, as the ultimate way to overcome the condition is to pass the stones through urine. However, you can effectively dissolve kidney stones using several methods ranging from home remedies and lifestyle changes to surgery for larger stones. You can also prevent this condition in a number of ways.
Here are some tips on how to prevent kidney stones, as well as some treatment options often prescribed by doctors.
1. Drink More Water
As said before, dehydration is by far the most common cause of kidney stones. When we drink less water, the fluids in our kidneys move slower, so there is a bigger chance of salt and mineral compounds coming into contact and sticking together to form stones. This is why drinking more water should be your first step towards fighting this condition.
Drinking a lot of water is crucial to keep your urine completely clear. Dark yellow or brown urine is an indicator that you’re not drinking enough water. You should aim for 12 glasses of water per day (standard 250ml glass).
If you exercise often or live in a very hot and dry climate, you may need to drink even more so that you can produce enough urine. Even when you have passed the stone, you should keep drinking 12 glasses of water per day. Since you’re at a higher risk to get kidney stones again if you’ve had the condition before, you should avoid dehydration even more than the average person.
To make sure you’re producing enough urine, your doctor might ask you to measure your daily urine output. He or she will also likely instruct you to pay attention to the color of your urine. You should always strive for pale yellow. As soon as you notice it’s getting darker than that, increase your water intake.
2. Home Remedies
Although drinking more water may be enough for some cases of kidney stones, adding a couple of healthy herbs certainly won’t hurt. There are various herbs and home remedies that promote kidney health and may help you fight kidney stones.
Below are some of the best herbs that can be beneficial to our kidneys and help prevent and treat kidney stones. Most of these are best consumed in the form of a drink such as a juice or tea.
Palo Azul BarkTea
Also referred to as “Kidney Wood”, Palo Azul bark is a natural diuretic that can help promote kidney health. It helps us excrete sodium and water, which makes it a potentially good option for treating various kidney conditions. Isoflavones, compounds commonly found in Palo Azul, have been mentioned to have beneficial effects against kidney stones.
To reap the benefits of Palo Azul bark, you can take Palo Azul bark tea. Between three and four cups of this beverage should be enough to get all the benefits you need.
You can learn more about using Palo Azul tea to help kidney stones here.
As increased urine production is one of the best ways to fight kidney stones, wheatgrass juice is often considered a good home remedy for this condition. It contains several compounds that can increase our urine production and allow the stones to pass more easily. You can drink between two and eight ounces of wheatgrass juice or pure extract daily, or you can swap this out for supplemental pills and powders that may be equally as effective.
Another herb that can help increase your urine production, celery is also known for its potent antioxidant qualities. This makes it an even better solution to fight kidney stones, as it may remove many of the oxidants that contribute to kidney stone formation. You can blend a couple of celery stalks with water to make celery juice and consume this drink throughout the day.
However, you should avoid this drink if you have:
- Low blood pressure;
- Any bleeding disorder;
- A scheduled surgery
Or if you’re taking:
- Lithium (Lithane);
- Levothyroxine (Synthroid);
- Medications that affect your sun sensitivity, like isotretinoin (Sotret).
Dandelion Root Juice or Extract
Dandelion root juice can stimulate the production of urine and bile. This helps our body get rid of waste and improves digestion. If you choose to take it in the form of a pill, around 500 milligrams of dried dandelion extract could help you prevent kidney stones or ease your symptoms. If you choose to go for dandelion tea or juice, you should stick to between three and four cups per day.
Avoid taking dandelion if you’re taking:
- Blood thinners;
- Lithium (Lithane);
Basil is rich in acetic acid, which may help break down kidney stones. It also affects your levels of uric acid, which can prevent the development of future stones. You can make tea using dried or fresh basil leaves and drink this beverage several times a day. You can also blend fresh basil into a smoothie or juice. You shouldn’t take basil as a medicine for more than six weeks.
Using basil for too long can lead to several health problems, including:
- Low blood sugar;
- Increased bleeding;
- Low blood pressure.
3. Losing Weight
As we mentioned before, obesity is one of the key risk factors for kidney stones, especially for women. In fact, according to research, women who weigh over 220 lbs. are 90% more likely to get kidney stones than women who weigh less than 150 lbs. One reason for this connection could be that higher BMI and increased insulin resistance (both of which are strongly connected to obesity) may increase the amounts of calcium in our urine.
That is why losing weight could be one of the best ways to prevent kidney stones. You can do this by engaging in more physical activities and regulating your diet (which we’ll cover in the next section). But, for now it’s enough to say that we have another reason to stay fit and eat a healthy diet.
4. Dietary Changes
Avoiding certain foods and introducing others to your diet can go a long way towards preventing and treating kidney stones. Here are some basic dietary guidelines that can help you fight this condition:
- Avoid oxalate-rich foods – the most common type of kidney stones are calcium oxalate stones. If you have a history of developing these stones, your doctor will likely recommend you to avoid oxalate-rich foods as much as you can. These include spinach, okra, beets, rhubarb, chocolate, soy products, nuts, sweet potatoes, and more.
- Reduce your intake of animal protein and salt – to avoid getting kidney stones, you may want to go for non-animal protein sources like tofu, lentils, nutritional yeast, green peas, and other protein-rich legumes. You should also use a salt substitute instead of regular salt, as reducing your sodium intake is crucial for preventing kidney stones.
- Be cautious with calcium, but don’t avoid it – contrary to popular belief, calcium intake from food doesn’t affect your risk of developing kidney stones. So, you can eat calcium-rich foods as you normally would, unless your doctor tells you otherwise. However, you should be cautious with calcium supplements, as they have been connected to an increased risk of kidney stones.
In addition to these general dietary tips, there are some foods that you can introduce to your diet to prevent kidney stones. These foods have been linked to kidney health and may help with the substances in our kidneys that contribute to stone formation.
Best foods to improve kidney health
Here are some of the best foods to help prevent and treat kidney stones.
This healthy fruit may help with kidney stones because of its antioxidant properties and ability to affect our urine’s acidity levels. Lower acidity levels can greatly reduce your chances of developing kidney stones, while pomegranate’s antioxidant qualities can affect the compounds that contribute to stone formation. You can eat pomegranate seeds whole or juice them to reap the health benefits of this fruit.
The reason why lemons could help with kidney stones is their high contents of citrate – a compound that can prevent calcium deposits. This compound can also make smaller stones easier to pass by breaking them up. You can squeeze lemons into a glass of warm water and drink this mixture every morning, right after waking up. Drinking it one more time just before dinner may also be beneficial.
Kidney Bean Broth
Kidney beans are rich in magnesium, which has been found to help with calcium absorption. This can be very important for preventing kidney stones and relieving symptoms of kidney stones. You can remove kidney beans from their pods and boil them for between four and five hours. You can then strain this liquid and consume it once cooled.
Apple Cider Vinegar
The reason why apple cider vinegar could help with kidney stones is its high contents of citric acid. This acid could help us dissolve calcium deposits that are often the cause of kidney stones. You can add two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to a glass of water and drink this mixture several times a day. It may be best to drink it right before a meal. Alternatively, you can also buy apple cider vinegar supplements if you find it hard to drink this mixture.
In addition to lifestyle changes and natural remedies, there are several clinically proven drugs that can help manage kidney stones. These medications can help regulate the amounts of salts and minerals in your urine. Painkillers are commonly prescribed to help with the symptoms, but they won’t affect the size of your kidney stones or their future reoccurrences.
Depending on which type of kidney stones you have, your doctor may prescribe you various types of drugs. Here are some of the most common ones.
- Calcium stones – for this type of kidney stones, your doctor will likely prescribe a phosphate-containing preparation or a thiazide diuretic.
- Uric acid stones – these stones are best treated with allopurinol (Zyloprim, Aloprim). This drug is used to reduce the amount of uric acid in our blood. In addition to this medication, your doctor may also recommend a drug that will make your urine more alkaline. The combination of an alkalizing agent and allopurinol is often enough to help dissolve uric acid stones.
- Struvite stones – these kidney stones usually form as a response to an infection. To prevent them, your doctor will likely prescribe a medication to keep your urine bacteria-free. Small doses of antibiotics for an extended period may help prevent struvite stones.
- Cystine stones – people who have these stones have a hereditary disorder that causes their kidneys to produce too much cystine. They can be difficult to treat. Your doctor may instruct you to drink much more fluids to produce a high amount of urine. They may also prescribe you a medication that affects the amount of cystine present in your urine.
These drugs will help control the substances in your urine. In addition to these, your doctor may also prescribe medications to treat your symptoms. These include painkillers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB). Your doctor may also prescribe you an alpha blocker – a type of drug that can relax the muscles in your ureter to help you pass the stones more easily and painlessly.
6. Medical Procedures to Remove Kidney Stones
If all else fails or you have a severe case of kidney stones, your condition may require a surgical procedure or another type of medical procedures. This is usually the case when the stones are too big to pass through urination and they may cause kidney damage and bleeding. The procedures range from minimally invasive to surgical removal of the stones that requires an incision.
Here are some of the most common procedures to remove large kidney stones.
ESWL (extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy) is a common procedure that uses sound waves to break up large kidney stones into small pieces. You can then pass these small particles through your urine like with mild cases of kidney stones. The procedure takes between 45 and 60 minutes and may cause moderate pain, which is why doctors use light anesthesia or sedation.
This procedure can cause blood in the urine, bruising on your abdomen or back, and bleeding around the kidneys. When you pass the smaller particles through your urine afterwards, you are also likely to experience some pain.
Removing Stones with a Scope
Another procedure that doesn’t require an incision involves a thin tube inserted through your urethra. This tube then reaches the ureter through the bladder and is used to locate the stones. Once they are located, they can be broken up into smaller pieces that you can later urinate out. This procedure requires local or general anesthesia.
To reduce swelling and promote healing after the procedure, your doctor may place a small tube in your ureter.
Surgery to Remove Large Stones
By making a small incision in your back, the doctor can then surgically remove larger kidney stones. Through this incision, the surgeon will then insert small telescopes and other instruments. You will need a general anesthesia for this procedure, and it’s very likely that you’ll be required to spend some recovery time in the hospital (usually around two to three days).
This procedure is often recommended when ESWL isn’t successful.
Parathyroid Gland Surgery
In some cases, calcium phosphate stones can be caused by our parathyroid glands. These are located behind the thyroid gland on the neck, just below our Adam’s apple. This condition is called hyperparathyroidism and usually starts with a benign tumor. Once this growth is removed, this will stop the formation of kidney stones.
The Bottom Line
If diagnosed in time and treated with caution, kidney stones are unlikely to cause you a lot of problems. Although they may feel uncomfortable (especially when you pass them), they rarely cause any permanent damage.
If you notice any symptoms of this condition, schedule an appointment with your doctor. You may only need to drink a lot of fluids and try some home remedies, but it’s best to consult a professional to determine the severity of your condition and the best treatment plan.