What Are Kidney Stones? [All Symptoms Reviewed]

what are kidney stones? doctor with kidney

Kidney stones are among the most painful medical conditions.

They affect millions of people in the United States alone and tend to reoccur quite often.

While there are several proven methods to relieve the symptoms of kidney stones, you first need to know how to recognize them.

This article provides a detailed overview of the causes and symptoms of kidney stones, as well as a list of the five best home remedies that can help you treat them.

Table of Contents

 

What Are Kidney Stones?

Kidney stones are solid masses made up of salts and minerals.

Certain amounts of these two substances are always present in your urine. But if their concentration exceeds the normal levels, they will form small crystal particles. These crystal particles will often grow and become visible, which is when we refer to them as kidney stones.

As their name suggests, the formation of kidney stones usually occurs in your kidneys. From there, they can move freely through your entire urinary tract. But in many cases, they can form elsewhere including:

  • Ureters – the tubes that move the urine from the kidneys to the bladder
  • Bladder – the expandable sac where your body stores urine before releasing it
  • Urethra – the tube that takes the urine from the bladder outside of your body

The sizes of kidney stones can vary from under an inch to several inches. In some cases, they can grow so big that they fill up the entire renal collecting system. Similarly, they can be so small that you don’t even notice them until they exit the kidney and enter the ureters.

What Causes Kidney Stones?

Although they know how they are formed, doctors don’t always know exactly what causes kidney stones.

It is usually not just one isolated cause, but a combination of several risk factors that can contribute to the formation of kidney stones. They tend to include one or more of the following:

Poor Hydration

Kidney stones often occur in people who don’t drink enough water and/or other fluids. This, in turn, results in a low amount of water in the urine. Since there’s not enough water to dilute them, the salts and the uric acid in the urine will become more concentrated and darken its color.

High Calcium Levels

High levels of calcium can also play a role in the formation of kidney stones. But it doesn’t always depend on your diet. Instead, it may have to do with your body’s ability to absorb and distribute calcium.

Vitamin D supplements can sometimes cause a spike in your calcium levels. They may thus also contribute to the formation of kidney stones.

Parathyroid Problems

The parathyroid glands in your body pump hormones into the blood and play a role in how your body absorbs calcium. People who have parathyroid problems are thus more likely to develop kidney stones.

Problems with the Gut

People with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or some other inflammatory bowel disease can have kidney stones as a complication of their condition. That’s because all these conditions cause diarrhea, which dehydrates your body. If you fail to hydrate properly, the low concentration of water in the urine can trigger the crystallization of salts and minerals in it.

Medication

Kidney stones can sometimes be a side effect of a drug you’re taking to treat an unrelated medical connection. One of the most common culprits is topiramate, an epilepsy drug doctors also use to treat and prevent migraines.

Gender, Age, and Family History

Research shows that men are more at risk of kidney stones than women. Although they can occur at any age, they are most common between the ages of 30 and 50. Furthermore, if one or more members of your family have had kidney stones, you may be at a higher risk of having them.

Your Own Kidney Stone History

If you’ve had kidney stones before, you may also be likely to have them again. According to research, your risk of developing kidney stones is 50% higher than usual for 10 years after your first experience with them.

Other risk factors include type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and gout.

What Types of Kidney Stones Are There?

Based on the substances that make up their crystals, there are four different types of kidney stones:

  1. Calcium stones occur when your body absorbs more calcium than it needs. The most common type of kidney stones, they are usually made of calcium oxalate.
  2. Uric acid stones, as their name suggests, consist of highly concentrated uric acid. These stones are more common in men, especially those who are undergoing chemotherapy or have gout problems.
  3. Struvite stones contain magnesium ammonium phosphate (struvite) crystals. They are usually the result of urinary tract infections and occur mostly in women.
  4. Cystine stones are the rarest type of kidney stones formed by the amino acid cystine. Only people who have the genetic condition called cystinuria can develop them.

What Are the Symptoms of Kidney Stones?

Regardless of their type, you can usually tell you have kidney stones by recognizing their symptoms.

As explained earlier in this article, in case of a large kidney stone, the symptoms may appear as soon as it’s formed. But if it’s a smaller stone, the symptoms most often won’t appear before it reaches one of the ureters and starts heading for the bladder.

In this section, we’ll discuss the main symptoms of kidney stones.

If you notice one or more of these symptoms, especially in combination with severe pain, it may mean that you have a kidney stone.

Renal Colic: Pain in the Gut

Commonly known as the “kidney stone pain,” renal colic is one of the most intense types of pain known to man. Some go as far as to compare it with the pain caused by getting stabbed with a sharp knife. This pain is the reason why the NHS lists kidney stones among the 20 most painful health conditions.

Renal colic usually affects the area around the urinary tract. This includes the side of your body, as well as the back and the lower abdomen.

So, why exactly does this pain occur?

It all starts when a kidney stone enters the ureter, a small tube that transports urine from each of your kidneys to the bladder. Because the ureter is narrow and the stone can be quite large, this blocks the exit from the kidney and causes pressure to build up. The nerve fibers in the affected area immediately start transmitting a signal that activates the pain centers in the brain.

Meanwhile, the ureter will start contracting in an attempt to push the stone out of the tube and into the bladder. This normally happens in waves that last for a few minutes and then stop, only to resume sometime later. As a result, the stone will gradually move down the ureter and the pain you feel will change its location accordingly.

While the severity of the pain often depends on the size of the stone, it doesn’t always have to be the case. Even a very small kidney stone can sometimes create a blockage in your urinary tract, which is enough to cause renal colic.

Urgent and/or Frequent Urination

The term urgent urination (or urinary urgency) means that you must get to the restroom immediately every time you feel the need to urinate.

There are, however, no rules that specify the “usual” number of times a person should urinate per day.

Problems with frequent urination can thus be a bit difficult to identify. But if one or more of the following statements apply to you, it could indicate that you have frequent urination issues:

  • You’re urinating so often that it has started to disrupt your regular routine.
  • Your productivity at work is suffering due to frequent trips to the restroom.
  • You feel nervous whenever there’s no restroom nearby.

Unlike frequent urination, urinary urgency manifests itself in a fairly straightforward way. Although you won’t feel the need to urinate more frequently than usual, it will always be sudden and extremely urgent. You will only be able to hold it in for the few moments it takes you to get to the restroom.

Frequent urination and urinary urgency can occur individually, but they often go hand-in-hand. Both are very common symptoms of a kidney stone that indicate it has moved into your lower urinary system (the bladder or the urethra).

Painful Urination

As the kidney stone is moving down your urinary tract, you might also start experiencing a burning sensation while urinating. This burning sensation can often manifest itself as a sharp pain, too. Sometimes referred to as dysuria, this problem usually occurs before the stone exits the ureter and enters the bladder.

Painful urination doesn’t always have to be related to kidney stones. For example, it can be a symptom of a urinary tract infection. Other possible causes can include:

  • Urethral stricture, the condition that occurs when your urethra narrows so much that it starts restricting the urinary flow.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease, an infection of female reproductive organs.
  • Sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea.
  • Some types of cancer like renal cell cancer and bladder cancer.

As a rule, the pain associated with kidney stones tends to relocate as they move down your urinary tract. This means that painful urination should be just a temporary problem. But if it goes on for a longer period of time, it could be a sign of some other medical condition.

Pyuria: Smelly and Cloudy Urine

Sometimes your urine can become cloudy and start giving away a very strong odor.

The medical term for this condition is pyuria.

Pyuria is one of the more common symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI). As we have already explained, urinary tract infections can sometimes cause kidney stones. In fact, a 2013 study found that 8% of people with acute kidney stones have a UTI.

Urine cloudiness becomes noticeable when pus or white blood cells enter your urine. The foul smell usually originates from the bacteria that are causing the infection. If there’s no underlying infection, the smell can also be the result of a high concentration of salts and minerals in your urine.

This problem might not always have to do with an infection or kidney stones. Its causes can range from seemingly unrelated conditions like sepsis and pneumonia to autoimmune diseases and long-term use of certain drugs. If you notice the symptoms of pyuria, you should go to your doctor for a urine test.

Low Output of Urine and Urinary Retention

Oliguria and urinary retention are quite similar, which is why people sometimes tend to confuse them.

Urinary retention is an inability to empty your bladder completely. You’ll feel the need to urinate and rush to the bathroom only to encounter difficulties. The stream of urine may be interrupted or there may be a short delay between the moment you try to urinate and the moment the stream actually appears.

Oliguria, on the other hand, is a medical term that denotes a lower daily output of urine than normal. Unlike urinary retention, you won’t experience difficulties while urinating. But you’ll only be able to produce less than 13.5 ounces of urine within a 24-hour period.

Both urinary retention and oliguria can be symptoms of kidney stones, but can often be signs of some undiagnosed health condition. Left untreated, both can lead to anuria, a chronic inability to urinate. To prevent this complication, you should visit your doctor as soon as you notice the signs of one of these two conditions.

Blood in the Urine

Blood in the urine is another common symptom of kidney stones.

Sometimes referred to as hematuria, it occurs when red blood cells enter your urine. There are two common types of this condition based on the concentration of red blood cells in the urine. They are:

  1. Gross hematuria – there are enough red blood cells to color the urine red, pink, or brown. You can identify this problem simply by looking at the color of your urine.
  2. Microscopic hematuria – there are so few red blood cells that you can’t actually see the blood or notice any changes in the color of your urine. This type of hematuria can only be identified by targeted lab tests, as well as by looking at the urine sample under a microscope.

There’s no rule as to how often you might notice blood in your urine. It can happen only once, but it may also appear every time you go to the restroom. Because it can be a sign of many potentially serious health problems, you should consult with your doctor even if you’ve only noticed this symptom once.

Nausea and Vomiting

Although they may seem unrelated, nausea and vomiting can often be symptoms of kidney stones.

This can happen for two reasons.

When a stone forms in your kidneys, it triggers the nerve fibers in the affected area. However, your kidneys share nerve connections with your gastrointestinal tract. This means that the stone can just as easily trigger the nerves in the gastrointestinal tract, which will likely result in an upset stomach.

It is also important to remember that kidney stones can be excruciatingly painful. Your body can only take the pain for so long before it employs some protective mechanism against it. According to one of its definitions, nausea is an “unpleasant sensation” of that protective mechanism.

High Fever

Fever is another surprisingly common symptom of kidney stones.

It only occurs when there’s an underlying urinary tract infection that has triggered the formation of the stones. Similar to nausea, your body will initiate an immune response to prevent the infection from spreading. Fever is an integral part of that immune response.

As a rule, the fever that occurs as a result of a kidney infection is always very high. It usually starts at about 38°C (100.4°F) and can go up to about 40°C (104°F). Due to its intensity, it is often accompanied by chills and shivering.

Keep in mind that your high fever doesn’t necessarily have to be a sign of a kidney infection. It can indicate a number of things – from the flu and hormonal imbalances to inflammations and autoimmune diseases. So, if you don’t have any other symptoms of kidney stones, chances are there’s something else that’s triggering this immune response.

The Best Natural Remedies for Kidney Stones

Whether you’ll need treatment for your kidney stone will depend on its cause.

When the stone is a result of a urinary tract infection or some other medical problem, you need to treat the cause to get rid of the stone. But in most other cases, kidney stones pass on their own after a few days without any specific treatment.

If you’re looking for natural ways to pass a kidney stone more easily, these five home remedies can help.

Water

Poor hydration can often be the cause of kidney stones, so it’s no surprise that increasing your water intake is one of the best ways to get rid of them. If you have a kidney stone, the recommended eight glasses of water a day might not be enough. Until you pass the stone, it might be best to drink at least 10 glasses of water each day.

In addition to that, observe the color of your urine each time you go to the restroom. If you’re drinking enough water, your urine should be clear, very pale yellow, almost transparent. If it’s any darker than that, you should up your daily water intake by at least a glass or two.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar contains citric acid that contributes to the dissolution of kidney stones. In doing so, it also helps relieve the pain they cause. Just mix two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar into eight ounces of purified water and take a sip of this mix a few times throughout the day.

Make sure not to drink more than 8oz of this mix in one day as it could lower your potassium levels and cause related complications.

Pomegranate Juice

Pomegranate juice helps you flush out kidney stones while also improving your overall kidney health. It also lowers the acidity of your urine, thus helping prevent kidney stones from reoccurring. You can drink as much pomegranate juice as you want.

Avoid pomegranate juice if you’re taking blood pressure medication, as the combination could cause your blood pressure to go too low.

Celery Juice

Celery juice is very easy to make – you just have to blend a celery stick with enough water. Like pomegranate juice, celery juice helps flush out your body to get rid of kidney stones more easily. It also eradicates toxins that cause the formation of kidney stones in the first place.

You shouldn’t drink celery juice if you have low blood pressure. Also, avoid it if you’re taking Xanax or some other tranquilizer, as the juice can interfere with the effects of the drug.

Palo Azul Tea

Due to its many positive effects on your kidneys, Palo Azul tea is one of the best home remedies for kidney stones. For one, it is a natural diuretic that flushes out urine, thus helping prevent kidney stones from forming. It also contains ingredients that prevent buildups of calcium oxalate, the salt that is most often found in kidney stones.

In addition to all this, Palo Azul tea also has a positive effect on your body’s insulin sensitivity. This could help prevent type 2 diabetes, which is one of the major risk factors for kidney stones.

The Final Word

If you suspect you have a kidney stone, look for one or more of the symptoms reviewed in this article.

Those symptoms will almost always be accompanied by intense pain in the back of your body, on its sides, or in the abdomen. As the kidney stone moves further down your urinary tract, the pain will also relocate and vary in intensity.

If there’s an infection, an inflammation, or a chronic disease that’s caused the formation of the stone, you may need to seek medical attention. But if the stone wasn’t caused by an underlying medical condition, it will likely pass on its own without treatment. Just remember to drink plenty of water, pomegranate juice, and Palo Azul tea to relieve the pain and pass the kidney stone more easily.