What are kidney stones and how are they treated?

Kidney stones are fairly common and affect around one in 10 people in the UK. They typically affect people aged between 30 and 60 and can develop in one or both kidneys. 

Kidney stones are made of minerals and salts that collect in your kidneys as crystals and form hard deposits — the type of kidney stones you have is determined by the type of crystals they’re made of. Kidney stones can affect any part of your urinary tract and often form when urine becomes concentrated, which allows minerals to form crystals. 

While most kidney stones are small — about the size of a grain of sand — and can be passed out in your urine without you noticing, they can become larger. If a kidney stone is fairly big, it can cause pain when you are passing it or it can get stuck, which leads to complications. 

What causes kidney stones?

Kidney stones are caused by waste products collecting in the kidneys and forming crystals. These crystals can build up into a lump similar to a stone. While this can happen to anyone, some factors mean you’re more likely to develop kidney stones, including:

You’re also at greater risk of kidney stones if your diet is high in salt, protein or glucose, which is why it is important to maintain a balanced diet if you have a history of kidney stones. 

What are the symptoms of kidney stones?

Small kidney stones often don’t cause any symptoms and you’re unlikely to notice them as they pass out of your body. However, if kidney stones get to be a few millimetres or even centimetres big, they can cause symptoms as your body tries to pass them out. 

Symptoms of larger kidney stones can include:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Pain in the side of your stomach or back
  • Strong smelling or discoloured urine

The pain caused by large kidney stones is severe and can radiate from the side of the abdomen and/or back down to your groin.

When should you seek medical attention for kidney stones?

While most kidney stones will pass on their own, you should see your GP if any of your symptoms are concerning you. 

Larger kidney stones can get stuck, which can lead to complications and the following symptoms:

  • Blood in your urine
  • Difficulty passing urine
  • Pain accompanied by fever and chills
  • Pain accompanied by vomiting
  • Pain that is so severe that you can’t find a comfortable position

In these cases, you should seek immediate medical attention. 

How are kidney stones diagnosed?

In some cases, your GP can diagnose kidney stones based on your symptoms and medical history. 

However, you may also need to undergo tests to check for kidney stones and also to make sure your kidneys are functioning properly. Tests can include:

  • Analysing the stones you pass
  • Blood tests to check your kidney function
  • Imaging, such as a CT scan or X-ray to check for kidney stones
  • Urine tests to check for infections

How are kidney stones treated?

The type of treatment you’ll receive for kidney stones will depend on the type of stones you have. If you have recurrent kidney stones, their composition will be tested so that your doctor can prescribe the most effective treatment.

Treatment for kidney stones can include:

  • Intravenous fluids ie fluids passed directly into your bloodstream 
  • Medication to break down the stones and for pain relief
  • Lithotripsy — using sound waves to break up large stones so they can be passed more easily
  • Tunnel surgery to remove the stones if they are too large, are damaging your kidneys or have caused an obstruction or infection
  • Ureteroscopy to remove stones stuck in the bladder or the tube connecting your kidneys to your bladder (ureter)

How can you prevent kidney stones?

If you have had kidney stones once, you are more likely to get them again, so it is important to take steps to reduce the chances of them forming. 

Try to:

  • Avoid fizzy drinks
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Drink water with fresh lemon juice
  • Reduce your salt intake

You can tell if you’re staying hydrated enough by the colour of your urine. Ideally, your urine should be light in colour. If it is dark, it means it is more concentrated, which increases the chances of crystals and then stones forming. 

Depending on the type of stones you have, your GP may also suggest altering your diet to cut down on certain foods. 

How do you maintain healthy kidneys?

Looking after your kidneys not only helps reduce your chances of kidney stones, it’s also important for your overall health and wellbeing. Keeping your kidneys healthy means they can function correctly, filtering waste and producing hormones your body needs. 

You can take care of your kidneys by:

  • Controlling your blood sugar levels
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Monitoring your blood pressure and taking steps to reduce it, if needed

You should also try not to take too many non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Taking these too regularly can lead to kidney damage. If you’re concerned about how often you’re taking NSAIDs, speak to your GP. 

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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Cahoot Care Marketing

Niched in the care sector, Cahoot Care Marketing offers a full range of marketing services for care businesses including: SEO, social media, websites and video marketing, specialising in copywriting and content marketing.

Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.

Their writers and editors include care sector workers, healthcare copywriting specialists and NHS trainers, who thoroughly research all topics using reputable sources including the NHS, NICE, relevant Royal Colleges and medical associations.

The Spire Content Hub project was managed by:

Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager

Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.

Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor

Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.

Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing

Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.