Kidney stones are hard deposits that form in the kidneys. Take steps to prevent these painful nuggets from developing.

A kidney stone can be as tiny as a grain of sand, and your body might get rid of it without any problems. But a bigger one can block the flow of urine and cause pain that some say is worse than childbirth. “They might be small, but kidney stones can cause significant discomfort,” says Dr Nivesh Sewlall, a specialist physician at Mediclinic Sandton.

Kidney stones develop when substances in your urine, such as calcium, oxalate, and uric acid, become highly concentrated and crystallised. If your urine doesn’t have enough fluid to prevent crystals forming, these crystals then clump together, forming solid masses.

Signs of kidney stones

Two common types of kidney stones are calcium oxalate stones and uric acid stones. You may not have symptoms until the stone moves down the ureter tubes that carry urine out of your kidneys and into your bladder. When this happens, the stones can block the flow of urine out of your kidneys, causing significant discomfort.

“Common signs include intense pain in the back or side, blood in the urine, frequent urination, and persistent urge to urinate,” says Dr Sewlall. “In some cases, you might experience nausea and vomiting.” If you think you have kidney stones, it's crucial to get medical attention for an accurate diagnosis and the right treatment.

How to pass a small kidney stone

Drinking plenty of water and fluids can help flush out a small stone. Your doctor might suggest anti-inflammatories to help manage the pain and medicine to help relax the muscles in the ureter and make it easier for the stone to pass. “Applying heat, taking a warm bath, and gently moving around can also minimise inflammation.”

Treatment for kidney stones

  • Shock wave lithotripsy:  X-rays locate the stones in the kidney or ureter and shock waves break them down into smaller pieces. These then pass out of your body in urine.
  • Ureteroscopy: A ureteroscope (long, thin tube) is inserted into the bladder, up to the ureter and into the kidney where it breaks up or removes the stone.
  • Laser lithotripsy: A laser is inserted into the ureter where it breaks the stones into small pieces so they can pass out of your body with urine.
  • Percutaneous nephrolithotomy: This procedure is for large stones and involves a small incision in your back or side so a tool can break up the stone and suction out the pieces directly.

Risk factors

You may be prone to developing kidney stones if you’re:

  • Obese
  • Suffering from diseases of the small intestine
  • Dehydrated
  • Eat too much:
    • salt
    • animal protein, e.g., beef, poultry, and fish
    • oxalate-rich foods, e.g., chocolates, peanuts, peanuts, tofu, soy milk, spinach, and wheat bran

Unfortunately, passing a kidney stone is not always a one-time event. “Having one stone greatly increases your chances of having another. "Most people will want to do anything they can to ensure it doesn't happen again," says Dr Sewlall.

How to prevent kidney stones

Drink water

“One of the best ways to avoid developing kidney stones is to drink enough water every day to stay hydrated,” advises Dr Sewlall. “This will help you urinate frequently, so you avoid build-up of calcium or uric acid.”

Eat yoghurt

Low-calcium diets increase your risk of kidney stones. Low-fat milk, cheese, and yoghurt are all good calcium-rich foods to include in your diet.

Replace salt with herbs and spices

The American Urological Association advises that too much salt in your urine prevents calcium from being reabsorbed from the urine to the blood. This causes high urine calcium, which may lead to kidney stones. “Instead of salting your food, experiment with fresh herbs and spices,” suggests Dr Sewlall.

Say no to red meat

To prevent uric acid stones from forming, cut down on high-purine foods such as red meat, organ meats, and shellfish. Follow a healthy diet that contains mostly vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.

Follow your doctor’s advice

If you experience symptoms, seek prompt medical attention. This ensures you get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment, preventing further complications and promoting your overall wellbeing.

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