Kidney stones: between a rock and painful place

by Michael Piskun, MD

Each year, more than half a million people in the US go to emergency rooms for kidney stone problems. 

Having kidney stones does not usually constitute a serious medical problem, however, and treatment is readily available – but the prevalence of kidney stones is increasing across the US. Patients describe the pain as very intense, which is why people can wind up in the emergency room.

Symptoms of a kidney stone include:

  • sharp, often severe pain on either side of your lower back
  • pain in the groin area
  • blood in the urine
  • cloudy urine
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • chills
  • fever

Seek medical attention if you are in severe pain and cannot get comfortable; pass blood in your urine; or if you develop a fever, chills, nausea or vomiting in conjunction with ongoing pain.

Kidney stones are, like the name suggests, little stones made of minerals, such as calcium, phosphates, and other insoluble salts. These “stones” form in the kidney – and stay there or travel into the urinary tract, which can be very painful.

Commonly, kidney stones are the result of prolonged dehydration – not drinking enough water on a regular basis - which means that for many people, kidney stones can be avoided. Drinking more water helps keep your system flushed, so that the minerals that form kidney stones don’t build up.

While anyone can form kidney stones, certain people may be at higher risk. High blood pressure, diabetes, gout, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and Crohn’s disease have been shown to increase the risk of development of kidney stones.

Additionally, people who have a family history of kidney stones are more likely to develop them. If you’ve had kidney stones in the past, you are at higher risk to develop them again. Occasionally, infections in the upper urinary tract can lead to kidney stones as well.

Drinking more water on a daily basis will help prevent kidney stones. Incorporating more fruits and vegetables in to your diet may help as well as reducing your salt intake, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Talk with your primary care provider about if you’re concerned about your risk for developing kidney stones. Sometimes modifying your diet can make a significant change in your risk for developing kidney stones.  Patients with recurrent stones, or risk factors with stone formation, should have a full workup by a urologist.

If you do develop kidney stones, there are a variety of treatment options, depending on severity. Many people can pass the stones through their urine by increasing their intake of fluids, and taking prescription medications. Minimally invasive treatments are available and are a good option for many patients.

AtlantiCare Surgery Centers in Egg Harbor Township and Cape May Court House perform minimally invasive outpatient treatments, including ureteroscopy and lithotripsy for less serious cases. More serious case that requires surgery, intravenous medication and/or round-the-clock monitoring, will be admitted to the hospital.

In the last year, ARMC completed 154 kidney and ureteral stone removals, which includes removals from both treatments.

Your primary care practitioner is a great first step in diagnosing a kidney stone. He or she will refer you to a urologist for specialized treatment, as necessary. We can generally treat most stones without having to send patients to the hospital.

Michael Piskun, MD, is a urologist with AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center and AtlantiCare Surgery Center.