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July 11, 2022

How to lower your risk of developing kidney stones

Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic offers prevention tips and treatment for severe cases

Adult Health Kidney Stones

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There are many reasons why it’s important to drink a lot of water in summer — it helps you stay cool, replenishes the liquid you lose through sweat, and reduces your chance of experiencing muscle fatigue while exercising. It also reduces the risk of developing kidney stones.

Kidney stones typically form when the minerals and substances in urine become concentrated and crystalize. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. Most consist of calcium and either oxalate or phosphorous.

“Kidney stones were primarily a disease of aging men, but since the 1970s, they have become more common in men, women and children,” said Sean T. McGinley, MD, a Nazareth Hospital and St. Mary Medical Center urologist. “The likely culprits are our diets, such as eating more protein, i.e., meat, carbs, and processed foods, and the obesity pandemic.”

If kidney stones pass through the urinary tract into your ureter, they may not cause you much pain. But if they become stuck and block your urine channels, they can cause a lot of discomfort.

“Kidney stones by themselves don’t cause symptoms,” Dr. McGinley says. “It’s when the stones start passing and block urine draining from the kidneys that people start getting the symptoms that are commonly referred to as stone pain.”

Kidney stone symptoms include pain in the groin, abdomen, or flank area, which is located around the ribs in the back and can be severe and come on suddenly, as well as nausea, fever, and frequent, painful, or bloody urination. It’s possible to pass small kidney stones without ever knowing you have them, but larger ones are often very painful and cannot pass on their own.

The size, number, and location of the kidney stones are the most important factors in deciding how to treat them. Doctors diagnose kidney stones in several ways: blood tests, urine tests, or imaging tests like X-rays or CT scans. If the stone is too large for a patient to pass, it may need to be removed by a urologist.

There are four main approaches for dealing with kidney stones.

One is to just monitor them, especially if they aren’t numerous, large, causing intolerable symptoms, or in a location where they could cause problems soon.

A non-invasive surgical treatment option is extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy, or ESWL. This procedure, which is offered at multiple Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic locations in Pennsylvania, uses shock waves to break up stones in the kidney or ureter. The tiny pieces of stone are then able to be passed in your urine.

The third option is ureteroscopy. According to Dr. McGinley, it’s similar to a colonoscopy, but instead of going through the colon, you’re going through the urinary tract with a small camera until you find the stone. The stone is then broken up and the pieces are removed by the urologist. No incisions are involved.

A more invasive procedure is a percutaneous nephrolithotomy, or PCNL, which involves using a rigid instrument to access the kidney through a small cut in the back. This may sound daunting, but the incision is only about 1 cm and allows for treatment of larger stones in a shorter amount of time. It is also used for people with complicated anatomy, such as those who’ve had kidney transplants.

The best thing you can do is prevent kidney stones from developing in the first place, which is where drinking a lot of water comes in. If you don’t stay hydrated, your urine can become more concentrated with minerals that can develop into kidney stones. This is particularly important to remember during the summer months. Due to both warmer temperatures and the increase in outdoor activity, the risk of becoming dehydrated and developing kidney stones becomes higher.

“It’s hardest to hydrate in the wintertime because you’re not as thirsty but it’s much more important in the summertime because you’re losing much more water to sweat than you realize and so you’re much more dehydrated at baseline than you would normally be,” McGinley said.

In addition to staying hydrated, there are other things you can do to lower your chances of developing kidney stones that are good steps for staying healthy in general. Here are some of them.

1. Maintain a healthy weight

Obesity increases your risk for kidney stones.

2. Cut back on soda and sweets

Fructose appears to increase the risk of developing kidney stones, so avoiding beverages and foods that contain a lot of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is recommended. If giving a little pizazz to water makes it an easier choice than soda for you, put lemon or lime juice in it or add sugar-free flavor additives ideally with citrate in them, as citrate/citric acid may prevent the formation of certain types of kidney stones.

3. Reduce your sodium intake

This appears on almost every list of things you can do to improve your health but is especially relevant to preventing kidney stones because salt eventually leads to more calcium in the urine. Cut back not only on salty snacks, but on foods that contain a lot of salt, such as canned soups and packaged snacks.

4. Eat more fruits and veggies and avoid oxalate rich foods

Eating lots of fruits and vegetables makes your urine less acidic, which decreases your chance of getting kidney stones, although you might want to avoid some veggies because of their oxalate content. Foods with a high oxalate content include spinach, beets, sweet potatoes, peanuts, chocolate and coffee. Tea also contains oxalates, although some research suggests that home brewed tea with minimal to no added sugar may be safer than canned/bottled teas and those made from a powder.

As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” when it comes to reducing your risk of kidney stones. But if you do fall victim to a severe case of this uncomfortable condition, Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic and Dr. Sean McGinley stand ready to assist you. Find a urology center near you.

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