Kidney stone facts and how to prevent them

Dehydration could be putting you at risk of kidney stones.

SO it seems the weather gods finally got the memo that it’s summer. 

And, if you need another reason to hit that minimum intake of eight glasses of water a day, consider this: Dehydration could be putting you at risk of kidney stones.

What are kidney stones?

As the name suggests, they are stones that form in the kidneys. There are different types, but usually they’re made up of deposits of calcium, ammonia, uric acid (one of the by-products from when the body breaks down food), and the amino acid cysteine.

Who gets them?

As Vivek Wadhwa, a consultant urologist notes, kidney stones are quite common and seen across all ages, from children through to the elderly. 

“But the peak age is about 20-50,” he says.

Research suggests men are slightly more prone to them, with around three in 20 men, and two in 20 women, developing them at some stage.

What causes them?

While kidney stones can be common, there’s a reason some people are more prone to them. 

“One of the main causes of kidney stones is not drinking enough fluid,” says Wadhwa. 

Put simply, fluids help flush the kidneys and keep things in working order.

Are they really that painful?

Some stones are so tiny they can easily go unnoticed, but generally, they are extremely painful. 

“Women always say it’s more painful than childbirth. It’s excruciating if the stone lodges in the urethra.”

Can it be serious?

While agonising, often kidney stones are a short-term problem and not serious. Wadhwa stresses it’s important for anybody who experiences extreme pain to seek medical attention.  

“If you get a complete blockage then the kidney has nowhere to drain and you can get an acute infected obstructed system, and people do die from that.”

How are kidney stones treated?

Treatment usually starts, says Wadhwa, with adequate fluid and pain relief. 

“If the stone is in the kidney and it’s small, usually it’s shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL, a non-invasive treatment that breaks up stones with shockwaves), and patients will be in and out within an hour,” he says. 

“Options for bigger stones include using a laser to break them up, and if the stone’s really big, then you do percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL), which means putting a tube directly into the kidney, breaking up the stone, and sucking it out. 

"This used to mean cutting open the tummy, but now it can all be done with minimally invasive techniques.”

How can I prevent them?

Once you’ve had a kidney stone, you are at greater risk of having more. However, much of the advice for avoiding kidney stones applies to everybody, since they can be so common. 

“In the old days, we used to tell patients things like, ‘Don’t drink milk, avoid dairy products etc’, but we don’t tend to do that any more,” says Wadhwa. 

“What we do say is it’s about a healthy diet, plenty of fluids, high fibre, and low salt — those are the main things. I tell my patients to drink at least two to three litres of fluid a day.”


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