• Biology

What Happens To Your Body When You Have A Kidney Stone

Unless you've had a kidney stone before, chances are you rarely give them a second thought. But when you do have a kidney stone, you learn it's a surprisingly excruciating phenomenon. Kidney stones are essentially mineral and salt deposits that form inside the lining of a person's kidneys. The kidneys work to flush out toxins and substances from the human body, which exit via the urinary tract. But some calcium buildups are unable to pass through the urinary tract, causing discomfort - to put it mildly - for the unlucky kidney owner.

Typically, a kidney stone can be passed after a person ingests a medley of hydrating substances, which forces it through the urinary tract and out of the body. But sometimes, stronger treatment measures are necessary.

By taking a closer look at what exactly kidney stones are and how they interact with the human body, you can learn how to avoid them - or, at least, minimize their negative effects.

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  • Photo: david__jones / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    It's Hard Diagnose Kidney Stones Before The Pain Starts

    Your doctor may take note if there are high levels of certain stone-forming minerals (like calcium oxalate and uric acid) in your blood after a blood test. It's exceedingly rare that a kidney stone gets diagnosed before the pain starts, though.

    Typically, it takes specialized testing to uncover kidney stones - including CT scans, ultrasounds, and urinalyses.

  • Photo: Wonderlane / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Hydrating Yourself Is The First Step To Passing The Stone

    If your doctor determines your stone is small enough, they may send you home with a minor pain reliever and advise you to drink a lot of water - enough to keep your urine clear as it dissolves some of the salt and mineral deposits - and wait for the stone to pass on its own.

    If the stone measures less than 5 mm across, there's a 70% chance it will pass on its own within two weeks. If the stone is between 5 and 10 mm, the odds lower to around 50%, and you may have to take stronger measures.

    The largest kidney stone doctors ever removed (surgically) from a person was recorded in 2004 and measured 130 mm (5.11 inches) wide.

  • Photo: DraconianRain / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    If Hydrating Doesn't Help Your Kidney Stone, Alpha Blockers Might

    Another noninvasive treatment option your doctor may recommend to help your body pass its kidney stone involves drugs known as alpha blockers. These pills relax the walls of the ureter, widening the passages and allowing a stone to exit more easily.

    Alpha blockers can come with side effects, but they're usually minimal and may include headaches or tiredness.

  • Photo: Muffet / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Advanced Treatment Is More Invasive

    There are two ways a doctor can remove a large kidney stone without performing surgery. The first is by using SWL, or shock wave lithotripsy. In this treatment, the kidney is bombarded by sound waves - approximately 1,000 to 2,000 of them - that pummel the stone into tiny, more manageable pieces for the ureter.

    Typically, the patient lies on an operating table, and doctors insert a stent (tube) into the bladder that reaches the kidney. The body has to be positioned just right so the shock waves attack the stones at a successful angle.

    The second option is ureteroscopy. This is when a thin tube is passed through your urinary tract, and the doctor manually removes the stone using a basket-like tool. If it's larger, a laser is pointed up the tube and used to break up the stone before the fragments are removed.

    Although it still involves entering your urinary tract - while you're most likely under anesthesia - there are no incisions involved, and recovery is much easier than conventional surgery.