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Treating and Preventing Kidney Stones

Kidney stones are very common and can cause significant pain and discomfort. Fortunately, there are things you can do to lower your risk of developing stones. If you do develop a kidney stone, there also are effective treatment options.

Twenty percent of men and ten percent of women will form at least one kidney stone during their lifetime. White men between the ages of about 40 and 60 are more likely to develop kidney stones, but men of other ages and ethnicities can form stones as well. The likelihood of stone formation is slightly less in women, with younger women at increased risk.

Kidney stones form when there is an excess of certain substances in the urine relative to the amount of water. These substances crystallize when they can no longer stay dissolved in the urine, resulting in a kidney stone.

Patients with kidney stones usually don’t experience symptoms until the kidney stone breaks off and drops into the ureter, the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder. Once this happens, people may experience significant pain.

Causes and Prevention of Kidney Stones

There are a number of dietary risk factors for the development of kidney stones, including lower calcium intake and lower consumption of fruits, vegetables, and potassium-rich foods. 

Also, when people have lower fluid intake, their urine becomes more concentrated, increasing the likelihood that certain substances in the urine will crystallize and form kidney stones. However, the type of beverage consumed can be important; for example, sugar-sweetened beverages increase the risk of kidney stones. 

Family history, certain lifestyle conditions, and some medical conditions also may play a role in the development of kidney stones. Nephrologists (medical kidney specialists) can help patients prevent stones through dietary modifications and medication.

Kidney Stone Treatment

Treatment for kidney stones depends on their size and location. Small stones are usually allowed to pass on their own. For larger kidney stones (about one centimeter or larger), it’s recommended that patients speak with a urologist to decide whether treatment of the stone, before it breaks off, should be considered.

Urologists break up or remove kidney stones with several techniques. One of the most common techniques is extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL), offered at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). ESWL breaks up stones noninvasively and can allow them to pass through the ureter. If necessary, kidney stones also can be removed through minimally invasive surgery,

In this video, learn more about kidney stones and research at BWH with Gary Curhan, MD, SCD, a Nephrologist within the Division of Renal Medicine.