By Benjamin Morgan, MD, Internal Medicine and Nephrology
Vibrant Health Family Clinics

Have you ever developed an excruciating pain in your back that won’t go away no matter what you do? Then just as the pain is reaching its worst, you urinate something that appears like gravel in the bathroom. If so, you, like millions of other adults, may have had the unfortunate experience of passing a kidney stone.

Kidney stones are relatively common, affecting approximately 1 in 11 American adults at some point in their lives. Symptoms typically involve back or one-sided pains that can radiate toward the groin. Pains typically are constant and throbbing and can be associated with nausea, blood in the urine, and pains with urination. Kidney stones can cause a great deal of pain, frequently leading to urgent care and emergency room visits.  At times, if the stone is too large, an individual may need the help of a urologist, who specializes in retrieval and break-up of symptomatic stones.

What Does Kool-Aid Have to Do With Kidney Stones?

If you or a loved one has suffered such experiences, you can appreciate that avoidance of developing stones can be an important health step. I frequently tell patients that kidney stone formation is similar to making Kool-Aid, where the sweetness of your drink depends on how much sugar is added. At some point no more sugar can dissolve in the water, reaching a point of supersaturation, and any further sugar added will merely remain undissolved.

The same process occurs in your kidneys, except instead of sugar, calcium-based salts stay dissolved in your forming urine. If too much calcium-based salts pass through our urine, crystals can begin to precipitate, and you are potentially on your way to forming a kidney stone.

Kidney Stone Prevention in Wisconsin

Thankfully, there are steps we can take to help prevent this process. Generally, the solution is making healthy changes in our diet.  Similar to the Kool-Aid model, if you want to dissolve more sugar, you need to add more water. Same with kidney stones, the more urine that is formed in the kidney, the more calcium-containing salts can safely dissolve.

Typically, I encourage my stone-forming patients that urinating more than 2.5L/day is one of the most effective means of preventing kidney stones (see, drinking more water can be beneficial for your health).  The type of consumed beverage is not that important; the amount of urine is the answer. Similarly, reducing the amount of animal-based protein intake and salt consumption are general dietary measures that help reduce the frequency of stone formation.

Outside of these general principles, other strategies are dependent on the type of kidney stone that you form (not all kidney stones are the same).  I frequently will perform a series of urine collections to measure what compounds place you at increased risk for forming various types of stones. A simple adjustment in dietary intake (i.e. dietary calcium, citrate supplementation, or reductions in oxalate-rich foods) can make a substantial difference in stone frequency.

If you are suffering from frequent kidney stones, talk to your doctor.  You may benefit from a more detailed discussion and treatment plan.