Kidney stones are a very common health problem. They form from the chemicals in urine, such as uric acid, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, and oxalic acid.
Medically referred to nephrolithiasis, stone formation happens when salts and minerals in the urine become crystallized by sticking together. These crystals continue to aggregate and build up over a few weeks or months into hard rock-like deposits or stones.
Kidney stones range in size from a fraction of an inch to several inches. Small kidney stones (0.2 inches or less than 5 mm) can pass through the urinary tract and out of the body with little or no pain. However, larger stones can be quite painful, block the flow of urine, and cause blood in the urine and other symptoms.
Kidney stones are quite common, with around 3 in 20 men and up to 2 in 20 women developing them at some stage of their lives. This condition also has a geographical prevalence (i.e., the “stone belt” is the southeastern states of the United States).
Men are more prone to kidney stones than women, and they are most likely to occur between the ages of 20 and 50, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Types of Kidney Stones
The four major types of kidney stones include:
- Calcium Stones: Excessive amounts of calcium in the urine accounts for 80 percent of all kidney stones. These calcium stones are formed when the calcium that is not used by the bones and muscles combines with other substances, such as oxalate and phosphate, in the urine. To a lesser extent (20 percent), calcium stone formation results from the lack of adequate calcium excretion by the kidneys.
- Struvite Stones: These stones develop in the wake of an infection and comprise magnesium and the waste product ammonia. Struvite stones can grow to be quite large rather quickly and thereby cause urinary blockages. These stones are mostly prevalent in women who are prone to urinary tract infections. They are predominantly seen in individuals with chronic indwelling urinary catheters, those who are debilitated, and those who have special bacterial infections (the bacteria often are Proteus mirabilis and Providencia).
- Uric Acid Stones: Such stones are more common in men than women, with elevated blood uric acid levels (hyperuricemia), a high-protein diet, and dehydration (insufficient water intake or excessive loss of fluids). You may inherit certain genetic factors that predispose you to this problem. Hyperuricemia may be the result of chemotherapy treatment for certain cancers in which, when the cells die (lysis), large amounts of uric acid are released.
- Cystine Stones: Cystine stones are relatively rare and usually develop in people grappling with a genetic disorder that goes by the name of cystinuria. Cystine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the body. Cystinuria is characterized by an increased excretion of this amino acid from the kidneys such that the urine contains unusually high levels of cystine.
Causes and Risk Factors for Developing Kidney Stones
One of the functions of the kidneys is to remove waste and fluid from your blood, which are filtered and excreted in the form of urine. Kidney stones occur whenever there is an excess of crystal-forming waste substances in your urine and a lack of water needed to dissolve them.
Both genetic and environmental factors as well as certain medical conditions and metabolic problems can lead to the formation of kidney stones:
- Kidney stones are a common occurrence in people who make less than 1 liter of urine per day.
- People with hypercalciuria/hypercalcemia (excess levels of calcium in the urine/blood) figure among those individuals with an elevated risk for nephrolithiasis. Hypercalciuria can result from medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism, hyperparathyroidism, sarcoidosis, and malignancies such as multiple myeloma and bone invasion by a tumor. There are also cases in which cause for the stones is unknown (idiopathic).
- Prolonged or excessive intake of calcium or vitamin D supplements can dangerously increase calcium levels in your blood and urine, paving the way for calcium crystallization in the kidneys.
- Consuming large amounts of oxalate-rich foods such as spinach, nuts, chocolate, and certain teas can lead to hyperoxaluria or excess levels of oxalate in the urine. These excessive oxalates then bind with calcium.
- People who cut back on their dietary intake of calcium in the hopes of preventing kidney stones might end up making themselves increasingly vulnerable instead. Lack of dietary calcium intake can trigger the parathyroid glands to activate the resorption of bone, resulting in hypercalcemia and increased risk of calcium stones.
- Hyperuricemia can increase the risk of gout or uric acid stones. Uric acid stones are an imminent threat for people suffering from hyperuricosuria, a medical condition associated with problematic uric acid metabolism.
- Cystinuria is a rare genetic disorder characterized by excess production of cystine, which can eventually lead to the development of cystine stones.
- Kidney stones may run in your family (familial).
- If you have already had one or more kidney stones in the past, you are increasingly likely to develop another in the future. There is an old adage that says, “once a stone former, always a stone former.”
- People with poor fluid intake or dehydration tend to have increasingly acidic urine, which is conducive to the formation of kidney stones. This is particularly true for people who live in warm climates and are prone to increased evaporation and perspiration via the largest organ of the body, the skin.
- Structural problems (such as cysts, remnants, and appendages) that cause pooling of urine and infection in the kidney may also cause kidney stone formation.
- Some medications taken for other conditions, such as diuretics (thiazides), calcium-based antacids (Rolaids), antiretroviral medications, and seizure medications (Topomax), can lead to kidney stone formation.
- Kidney stones are more prevalent among men than women.
- Unrestricted consumption of sugar-rich or phosphate-rich foods has also been linked with an increased incidence of kidney stones.
- Eating a diet that runs high on sodium can increase the amount of calcium your kidneys must filter, thus making you increasingly susceptible to kidney stones.
- People who have grappled with gastric bypass surgery, inflammatory bowel disease, or chronic diarrhea often undergo changes in their digestive process that adversely affect the absorption of calcium and water in the body, increasing the risk of stone formation.
- People aged between 30 and 50 are the most commonly affected by the scourge of kidney stones.
- Overweight and obese people are also more susceptible to this problem than people who weigh within the optimal limits.
- Other medical conditions that can precipitate the development of kidney stones include renal tubular acidosis, milk-alkali syndrome, and prolonged immobilization.
- People who are in the habit of eating a high-protein diet that runs low on fiber and magnesium are also likely victims.
- People with certain structural deformities in the urinary tract that cause the pooling of urine and infection in the kidney are also at an increased risk of nephrolithiasis.
Symptoms of Kidney Stones
Kidney stones can form in either one or both kidneys and can grow to different sizes, ranging from as small as a grain of sand and pea-sized to as large as a pebble. On occasion, the dissolved salt and minerals within the kidney can combine to give rise to relatively large stones that are the size of a golf ball!
So long as the kidney stone remains immobile within the kidney, it is unlikely to trigger any pain or other noticeable symptoms. Detecting the presence of such stones is usually a happenstance wherein it is picked up by an X-ray or scan done for another reason (if calcium based).
However, if the kidney stone starts to move around within the kidney or passes into the ureter, the tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder, you are likely to experience bouts of excruciating pain in and around the flanks known as renal colic. Not everyone with kidney stones has to brave out this pain. If your stone is small enough, chances are you might pass it out of the urinary tract without even noticing it.
However, larger stones can be more difficult and painful to eliminate through your urine. As these considerably sized stones move down the narrow and delicately structured ureters, they can cause painful spasms and irritation.
Moreover, as the stone travels along the urinary tract, it can obstruct the natural flow of urine, causing inflammation in the kidneys. The swelling, in turn, activates the nerves to send signals to the brain that are interpreted as an intense, visceral pain located between your shoulder blades.
Safe to say, the larger your stone, the more distressingly conspicuous the symptoms.
The commonly reported symptoms that follow in the wake of kidney stone formation include:
- Sharp pain emanating from either side of your back (flank) that radiates to your lower abdomen and groin
- A relatively dull ache between your shoulder blades
- Nausea or vomiting
- Unusually frequent need to urinate
- Mucus in the urine
- Gravel-like substances passed in the urine
- Pink, red, or brown blood in the urine (known as hematuria)
- Urine that looks cloudy and/or smells unusually foul
- Pain or burning sensation while urinating
- Strong urge to urinate but excreting only small amounts
- Fever and chills when your kidneys have been infected (known as pyelonephritis )
Although the pain associated with kidney stones is not persistent and usually comes in waves, it can be severe enough to warrant a visit to the emergency room. Moreover, the intensity and location of the pain may change as the stone makes its way through the urinary tract.
After conducting a physical exam and a comprehensive assessment of your medical history, your doctor can conclusively verify the existence of a kidney stone by ordering a string of tests.
These include imaging tests to check the kidneys, the ureters, and the bladder for stones.
For instance, an abdominal CT scan helps ascertain the presence of a kidney stone, it’s location and size, signs of urinary blockage, and the state of the organs that make up the urinary tract and those that adjoin it.
Unlike standard X-rays that often miss out on smaller kidney stones, or if they are not calcium based, a CT scan is largely effective in detecting even the tiniest anomaly.
Similarly, an ultrasound of the kidney uses sound waves to create real-time images that can help detect kidney stones noninvasively. Ultrasound is preferred over CT scans in the case of pregnant women to avoid subjecting them to unnecessary radiation.
X-rays, including an intravenous pyelogram (IVP) where dye is injected into the bloodstream before the X-ray, are taken.
Another lesser-known imaging technique to visualize abnormalities of the urinary system involves injecting dye into an arm vein to outline the kidneys, ureters, and bladder. The movement of the dye as it passes through the urinary tract is monitored via X-rays (IVP) or by obtaining CT images (CT urogram).
Of all these tests, ultrasound is the safest option as CT scans and IVP employ the use of dyes that can cause kidney infections, kidney dysfunction, or allergic reactions to the dye (radiocontrast) in people with an already compromised renal system.
Additionally, certain medications can amplify the damaging effect of this dye on your kidneys. Thus, your radiologist should be informed about any medication that you are on before going for either of these tests.
The doctor may also conduct a set of urine tests, which may include:
- Urinalysis, which entails analyzing a urine sample under a microscope to look for stone-forming crystals, blood, white blood cells, and bacteria and to determine the urinary pH (measures the acidity of the urine)
- A 24-hour urine collection test, which will require the patient to collect urine samples over a 24-hour period in a container
In conjunction with these urine and image tests, your doctor may test your blood for excessive levels of calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, uric acid, thyroid hormones, and parathyroid hormone, to evaluate kidney function, and to check signs of anemia or infection.
Once the stone is excreted through the urinary passage, you will be required to deliver it to your doctor for further analysis. The doctor will examine the composition of the stone in the lab, which might reveal its probable cause.
Once your doctor is equipped with all the necessary information, he/she can lay down an appropriate treatment plan for other stones that may be present as well as a plan to prevent a recurrence.
If your kidney stone happens to be less than 5 mm in diameter, drinking ample amounts of water can be sufficient to excrete the stone naturally out of your system without any medical intervention.
In fact, everyone is recommended to drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of water daily to increase their urine flow volumes.
The pain associated with kidney stones is usually excruciatingly severe at its onset and may require carefully administered narcotic medications for relief.
As the condition persists, the pain mitigates to a milder degree and can be managed by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and naproxen sodium (Aleve). If you have a known kidney disease, you must avoid ALL NSAIDS. The prolonged and excessive use of NSAIDs can cause kidney dysfunction.
The doctor may also write down a prescription for an alpha-blocker, which works by relaxing the muscles of the ureter to facilitate easy and painless passage of the stone.
Doctor-assisted removal of kidney stones (known as a urologist) may be needed if:
- The stone is too large to pass on its own.
- The stone leads to severe pain or bleeding.
- The stone gets stuck within the urinary tract in such a way that it blocks the flow of urine, potentially causing an infection.
There are a number of treatment options that are regularly used for the elimination of kidney stones:
- Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) involves the use of lithotripters or lasers to generate targeted high-energy shock waves. These waves are directed at the kidney stone under imaging guidance, leading to the disintegration of large stones into smaller fragments that patients pass on their own.
- Smaller stones in your ureter or kidney can be directly removed from the ureter by using a ureteroscope, a fine instrument inserted into the ureter via the bladder.
- Percutaneous nephrolithotomy is a minimally invasive procedure that involves the insertion of a needle-thin instrument called nephroscope through a small incision in your back that is made to create a passage to the kidneys. This instrument has a camera on the tip and can be used to locate and break up kidney stones or remove them altogether.
- Your doctor may feel the need for surgery to remove benign tumors from the parathyroid glands to stop the overproduction of parathyroid hormones that often results in calcium phosphate stones.
You can easily prevent kidney stones by eliminating the conditions that support their formation.
Drink Enough Water to Keep the Urine Diluted: Insufficient water intake can put you at a higher risk of developing kidney stones.
Dark-colored urine that persists throughout the day indicates concentrated urine and lack of adequate water intake. A healthy adult must try to drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of water daily. Do not forget the loss of water through your skin (evaporation) via heavy exercise (sweating), saunas, and hot yoga.
Eat Calcium-Rich Foods to Reduce Oxalate Levels: Less calcium in your diet increases the oxalate levels in the body, which may cause kidney stones. Dietary calcium binds with oxalates in your intestine, which prevents both from being absorbed into your blood and subsequently getting transferred to your kidneys.
So, include calcium-rich foods such as dairy products, calcium-fortified nondairy milk, and kefir in your diet.
Limit Oxalate-Rich Foods: Eating oxalate-rich foods in high amounts can increase your risk of kidney stones.
Limit Salt Intake to Reduce Sodium Level: Sodium-rich foods can support the formation of kidney stones by increasing the calcium content in your urine. Eat a low-sodium diet to reduce your risk of kidney stones. The recommended amount of salt is no more than 5 grams a day.
Limit Sugar and Artificial Sweetener Intake: A high sugar intake (such as high-fructose corn syrup drinks) creates an imbalance in the mineral relationship of calcium and magnesium absorption.
Limit Red Meat Consumption: Red meat is high in purines, which can lead to a higher production of uric acid in your body. It lowers your overall urine pH, making it more acidic. A high acid concentration in urine leads to uric acid kidney stones.
Exercise Daily to Maintain a Healthy Body Weight: Being overweight increases your risk of developing kidney stones, so include exercise in your daily routine to drop some pounds and maintain a healthy weight.
Avoid Soda and Carbonated Drinks: While water is good for your kidney health, drinking soda and carbonated drinks in excess is associated with stones. Sodas contain phosphoric acid that acidifies your urine, which may lead to stone formation.
Avoid Use of Fluorinated Water: Drinking fluorinated water may also increase your risk of developing kidney stones. There is controversy regarding fluorinated water and stone formation. To avoid these problematic situations, you can drink bottled water or have a reverse-osmosis system installed in your home to remove fluoride from your water.
Eat Plenty of Fruits and Vegetables: Magnesium is very important for your body’s absorption and assimilation of calcium. It also helps prevent calcium from combining with oxalate, which is a key factor in kidney stones.
If you are prone to kidney stones, eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Avoid red beets and spinach. Limes and lemons (limeade and lemonade) are high in citrate. Citrate is involved in the prevention of crystallization and stone formation.
When to See a Doctor
If you feel that the pain and discomfort have exceeded your threshold, seek the help of your healthcare provider who can guide you through the ordeal in the best possible way.
Prompt medical attention becomes the need of the hour if you experience:
- Debilitating pain that makes it difficult to sit still or find a comfortable position
- Pain that is accompanied by nausea and vomiting
- Pain accompanied by fever and chills, which can be an indication of infection
- Bloody urine
- Difficulty passing urine
Your doctor will refer you to a urologist to manage stones that are too big, incapable of passage, or associated with complications (hematuria, infection).
Kidney stones that remain inside the body for too long can lead to many complications. For as long as the kidney stone remains lodged within the ureter, you may continue to excrete reduced or insufficient amounts of urine from the body. Such prolonged urinary obstruction can pave the way for subsequent kidney infection and chronic renal damage.
Natural Remedies to Help You Recover from Kidney Stones
In addition to conventional medications, a majority of cases of kidney stones can be treated with the help of natural ingredients. Many of them also help prevent stones from developing in the future.
Moreover, make sure to drink plenty of water. If you drink 6 to 8 glasses of water along with other kinds of fluids daily, the color of your urine will become clear, which is a good sign.
Here are the top 10 home remedies for kidney stones. Also, do consult your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.
1. Drink a Concoction of Lemon Juice and Olive Oil
The combination of lemon juice and olive oil is traditionally used as a home remedy to expel gallbladder stones, but it can also be used to treat kidney stones. The citric acid present in lemon helps break down calcium-based kidney stones and stops further growth of a stone.
A preliminary study published in the Journal of Urology found that patients who were treated with lemonade therapy for a mean of 44.4 months demonstrated increased urinary citrate levels and their stone formation rate decreased from 1.00 to 0.13 stones per patient per year.
- Take 4 tablespoons or 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice.
- Add an equal amount of olive oil.
- Drink this mixture followed by plenty of water.
- Do this two to three times a day, for up to three days. You need not continue this remedy if you pass the stones in a single dose.
Warning: This remedy may not be suitable for passing large kidney stones. Make sure you consult your doctor before taking this remedy.
2. Brew a Nettle Leaf Tea
Nettle leaf helps maintain the flow of water through the kidneys and bladder, thus promoting smooth urination. Nettle leaf also helps keep crystals from forming into stones and keeps bacteria away. Nettle tea will also enhance the benefits of water by acting as a natural diuretic.
A study published in Molecular Medicine Reports found that the methanol extract of Urtica dioica efficiently dissolves calcium oxalate renal stones in male Sprague-Dawley rats. The extract showed a dose-dependent curative effect on urinary and renal parameters, including calcium oxalate renal stone formation. This study was not duplicated in humans.
- Add 2 teaspoons of dried nettle leaf to 1 cup of hot water.
- Let the dried nettle leaf steep for 10 minutes and then strain the liquid.
- Drink 2 to 3 cups of nettle tea daily for several weeks.
Note: Avoid stinging nettle if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Use nettle with precaution if you are diabetic, suffering from hypertension, or taking lithium, blood-thinning, or sedative medications.
3. Dandelion Root Extract Promotes Recovery
Dandelions can come in handy for bolstering the excretory system. Not only does it promote urine output, but this taproot perennial is also known to replenish the potassium that is flushed out with the urine.
Dandelion root juice has earned the reputation of a detox drink for its ability to stimulate the production of both bile and urine. This cleansing property can be attributed to a certain compound present in dandelion root that helps rid the body of waste.
You can purchase dandelion tea that is readily available in supermarkets and drink 3–4 cups of this tea every day.
Alternatively, you can extract fresh dandelion juice and supplement it with a bit of orange peel, apple, or ginger to make it more palatable. Drink 3–4 cups of this tea throughout the course of your day.
You can even take dandelion extract in pill or capsule form. The recommended dosage of dried dandelion extract to ease the symptoms of kidney stones or prevent their formation is 500 mg. However, check with your doctor first to avoid any undue side effects.
Note: If you have allergies with ragweed and related plants (daisies, chrysanthemums, marigolds), then you are also likely to be allergic to dandelion. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider before taking dandelion. Use dandelion with caution if you are taking antibiotics, lithium, or medications changed by the liver.
4. Consume Pomegranate for Healthy Healing
- Try to eat one whole pomegranate or drink 1 glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice daily. You can also mix pomegranate in your fruit salad.
- Another option is to grind 1 tablespoon of pomegranate seeds into a fine paste. Eat this paste along with a cup of horse gram soup once daily. This remedy helps dissolve the stones. You can find horse gram in Indian markets.
5. Watermelon is a Kidney-Friendly Treat
Watermelon is a great way to treat kidney stones composed of calcium, magnesium, phosphates, and carbonates. The potassium present in watermelon is an essential ingredient for healthy kidneys. It helps regulate and maintain the acid level in the urine.
A study published in Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy found that an in vivo rat model of urolithiasis showed reduced calcium oxalate (CaOX) crystal count in both the kidney and urine after administering the pulp extract of watermelon.
Also, the serum analysis showed elevation in creatinine clearance and reduction in urea and creatinine levels. This study has not been reproduced in human studies.
Along with potassium, watermelon also contains a high concentration of water, which helps in flushing out stones from the kidneys. Eating watermelon regularly can help greatly in the treatment and prevention of kidney stones. You can also consume watermelon seed tea.
6. Fix Yourself a Steaming Bowl of Kidney Beans Broth
Being high in fiber and magnesium, kidney beans can be effective in the treatment of any kind of kidney or bladder problem, including kidney stones.
A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Green Pharmacy demonstrated the antiurolithiatic activity of the ethanolic extract of P. vulgaris (kidney bean) seeds against ethylene glycol-induced renal calculi in Wistar rats.
- Remove the beans from inside the pods, and then put the beans in hot water. Simmer the water on low flame for hours until the beans become soft and tender. Strain the liquid and allow it to cool. Strain the liquid again. Drink this bean broth several times throughout the day to relieve kidney stone pain. This broth should not be kept for more than 24 hours, as it will lose its therapeutic properties.
- You can also eat kidney beans in a soup or salad.
7. Wheatgrass Juice Makes for a Renal Tonic
Wheatgrass juice may be an effective addition in the treatment of kidney stones. You can also have a glass of wheatgrass juice mixed with 1 teaspoon each of lemon juice and juice extracted from basil leaves.
Take this juice two to three times a day.
Wheatgrass juice is a good source of magnesium, potassium, iron, amino acids, chlorophyll, and B vitamins.
Note: Use wheatgrass with precaution if you are diabetic. Stop taking wheatgrass as medicine at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery.
8. Basil Inhibits Stone Formation
Basil can help renal function in more ways than one. It contains acetic acid, a chemical that helps break down kidney stones into smaller bits, which are easier to excrete.
Moreover, basil contains certain compounds that may prevent the formation of kidney stones (uric acid). What’s more is that basil juice is generously supplied with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, both of which are beneficial.
- Mix 1 teaspoon each of basil juice and honey. Take this mixture daily in the morning for 5 to 6 months. If you do not like the taste of honey, you can take pure basil juice or chew two to three basil leaves daily.
- Another option is to drink basil tea. Steep five to six basil leaves in boiling water for about 10 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of honey and drink this tea after it cools.
9. The Fibrous Goodness of Bran Flakes
The insoluble fiber found in wheat helps reduce calcium in the urine as it combines with calcium in the intestines, thereby eliminating it through the stool.
Thus, it is essential to eat foods that are rich in fiber when suffering from kidney stones. When it comes to fiber-rich food, nothing is better than bran flakes. One bowl of bran flakes can provide 8 mg of fiber. So, to cut the risk of kidney stones, eat bran flakes daily without fail.
Whole-grain foods such as bread can also help greatly lower your risk for kidney stones. Whole-grain bread is a rich source of nutrients, fiber, and protein along with magnesium.
Magnesium especially can help prevent the coalescing of crystals in the kidney to form larger stones. So, those suffering from kidney stones should eat two to three slices of whole wheat bread daily to reduce the stones.
Along with bread, eat whole-grain cereals, pasta, and so on to increase your intake of fiber and other nutrients to ward off kidney stones in the future.
10. Use Celery to Increase the Urine Output
A glass of raw celery juice can help relieve pain from kidney stones due to its antispasmodic properties. Celery juice helps clear out toxins that contribute to the formation of kidney stones. Raw celery juice is also a diuretic, which means it increases the volume of urine and helps flush out the stones.
- Drink a glass of celery juice daily in order to prevent more stones from forming.
- You can also use celery seed to treat kidney stones. Drinking herbal tea made with celery seeds can help treat kidney stones resulting from uric acid accumulation.
Try any of these natural remedies for symptomatic relief. If there is no improvement in your condition, consult your doctor.
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