More than a twinge of discomfort, kidney stones are known to be painful … so painful that the experience is often compared to child birth. 

“Kidney stones are literal rocks, composed of various minerals or chemical molecules, that form in the kidney’s plumbing system,” says Daniel Parker, MD, a urologist and an assistant professor at OU Health in Oklahoma City. “About 10% of people living in the United States are affected by kidney stones, and the prevalence of kidney stone disease in our country has been rising over the last 40 years.”

Each year, more than half a million people go to the emergency room for kidney stone problems, reports the National Kidney Foundation. 

Parker says kidney stones develop when certain substances are no longer able to stay dissolved in the urine. 

“When this happens, the precipitated substance forms microscopic crystals that slowly grow until a stone has formed,” he says. “Patients experience symptoms when the stones grow very large or decide to make their way down the urinary tract. ‘Passing a kidney stone’ refers to stones that are traveling through a pipe, called the ureter, which normally carries urine from the kidney to the bladder. Along the way, the kidney stones can become stuck in the ureter, causing urinary obstruction. This leads to flank pain, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, burning with urination, blood in the urine and occasionally fevers.”

While kidney stones most commonly affect men and women between the ages of 30 and 50, Parker says you’re most likely to be affected by kidney stones if you’re male, live in the southeastern United States, work in conditions that cause frequent dehydration, or have other health problems such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. 

However, there are ways to avoid developing kidney stones. 

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“The keys to kidney stone prevention include making sure you drink plenty of water each day, maintaining a diet low in salt as well as animal protein, and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables,” says Parker. “We also recommend minimizing consumption of foods that contain oxalate (nuts, spinach, soy, tea, chocolate) as these are known to increase your risk of kidney stones. Finally, patients at-risk for developing kidney stones should take in a moderate amount of calcium each day, which translates to 1000mg to 1200mg per day.”

Despite your best efforts, if you still experience kidney stones, the good news is there’s been significant developments in their management, offering patients more treatment options. 

“We now have medications that can help patients pass kidney stones more quickly, comfortably and reduce their need for surgery,” says Parker. “When surgery is necessary to treat a kidney stone, newer techniques offer approaches that prioritize minimal invasiveness and avoidance of uncomfortable tubes or stents. The latest laser technologies allow surgeons to treat stones using tiny cameras without incisions that minimize trauma to delicate structures like the ureter.”

OU Health is Oklahoma’s comprehensive kidney stone center, says Parker.

“Our experts are here to assist patients of all ages who suffer from kidney stone disease – adults and children alike,” he says.