What causes kidney stones?

Ahna A. Patterson, PA-C
Medcor Provider

Kidney stones lead to more than 3,600 ER visits each day,1 and estimates say that one in 11 people will have at least one kidney stone in their lifetime.2 This disruptive and painful condition is also the cause of numerous return trips to the ER as well as hospitalizations. So, what are kidney stones? And can you avoid developing them?

What are kidney stones?

Kidney stones are solid, pebble-like formations that develop in the kidneys. When the body tries to expel them, it brings on intense pain and discomfort.

What causes kidney stones?

Kidney stones most commonly develop when there is too much calcium circulating in the body. Eighty percent of kidney stones are comprised of mostly calcium; the remaining twenty percent are most often made up of other chemical compounds such as uric acid crystals, struvite, and cystine.3

High levels of calcium can occur in the body when:4

  • the intestines absorb too much calcium from certain foods, such as dairy products
  • calcium is reabsorbed from bone
  • the kidneys do not get rid of calcium in urine

Other risk factors associated with the development of kidney stones include:5

  • family history
  • dietary influences
  • decreased fluid intake
  • medical conditions such as gout, diabetes, and obesity

In addition, kidney stones become more common with increasing age, and men tend to develop kidney stones more often than women.

What are symptoms of kidney stones?

Kidney stones can cause a sudden onset of severe pain in the side or flank that can radiate to the groin area. Additional symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, fever, pain with urination, blood in the urine, cloudy urine, and increased urinary frequency and urgency.6 If your healthcare provider suspects a kidney stone, they may further evaluate you with laboratory studies and an x-ray of cat scan to determine the size and location of the stone.7

How are kidney stones treated?

Some kidney stones, if they are small enough, may pass through the urinary tract without specific treatment. Symptoms can be controlled with pain medications and nausea medications, and by drinking plenty of fluids can help the stone to pass. However, if more than one stone is present, if the stone is more than 5 millimeters in diameter, if the kidney starts to enlarge due to swelling, if there is an infection of the urine along with the stone, or if the kidney stone is present in a pregnant woman, a urologist will often be consulted for treatment.8 A urologist may recommenda non-invasive procedure known as shock wave lithotripsy (SWL), which uses shock waves to break the kidney stones into smaller pieces in order for them to pass more easily through the urinary tract, or a urologist may recommend an invasive procedure to physically remove the kidney stone from the body.9

Are kidney stones preventable?

Prevention measures for kidney stones include:10

  • drinking more water
  • losing weight
  • managing diabetes
  • decreasing intake of high-sodium foods, dairy, and other foods depending on the chemical composition of previous stones

This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition or to give medical advice. Always consult your healthcare provider for healthcare instructions. External links are provided as references and do not indicate an endorsement by Medcor. External links are subject to other sites’ terms of use and privacy policies.

1 Gregory Foster, Carol Stocks, and Michael S Borofsky, “Emergency Department Visits and Hospital Admissions for Kidney Stone Disease, 2009,” Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) Statistical Briefs, July 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK100827/

2 Physician’s Weekly, “Examining Emergency Department Returns for Kidney Stones,” July 7, 2016, https://www.physiciansweekly.com/examining-emergency-department-returns-for-kidney-stones/

3 Glenn M Preminger and Gary C Curhan, “The first kidney stone and asymptomatic nephrolithiasis in adults,” UpToDate, last updated May 7, 2018.

4 Gary C Curhan, “Risk factors for calcium stones in adults,” UpToDate, https://www.uptodate.com/contents/risk-factors-for-calcium-stones-in-adults?csi=14676c84-7761-4ea2-9c3a-5ac420bccd92&source=contentShare

5 Ibid.

6 National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “Symptoms & Causes of Kidney Stones,” https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/urologic-diseases/kidney-stones/symptoms-causes

7 “The first kidney stone and asymptomatic nephrolithiasis in adults.”

8 Lynda Frassetto and Ingrid Kohlstadt,”Treatment and Prevention of Kidney Stones,” American Family Physician, https://www.aafp.org/afp/2011/1201/p1234.html

9 National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “Treatment for Kidney Stones,” https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/urologic-diseases/kidney-stones/treatment

10 “Treatment and Prevention of Kidney Stones.”