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Kidney Stones on the Rise: Preventing and Treating a Growing Health Issue

young adult male holds his left side while wincing in pain sitting on a white couch

As many as one in 10 people will have a kidney stone in their lifetime, according to the National Kidney Foundation. That percentage has increased since the 1970s and affects people of all sexes and races.

Made up of chemicals in the urine, kidney stones form when the kidneys filter too much waste in too little liquid. Crystals grow first, attracting other elements until they form a solid stone.

Some Common Causes of Kidney Stones

  • Drinking too little water
  • Exercising either too much or not enough
  • Obesity
  • Eating salty, sugary foods
  • Infections
  • Family history and genetics

A Growing Health Concern

Justin Ziemba, MD, Assistant Professor of Urology in Surgery at Penn Medicine says kidney stones occur most commonly in working age adults. However, that age is getting younger—and so is the overall prevalence of kidney stones. Fast food diets and sedentary lifestyles are likely culprits.

“We’re starting to see more in school age children. It’s a relatively new phenomenon in the last 20 years,” Dr. Ziemba says.

Researchers also have noticed a correlation between kidney stones and chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart and vascular disease. Dr. Ziemba calls it “a clinical manifestation of what else is going on with their health.”

Making the Diagnosis

Some people have kidney stones and never know because they don’t have any symptoms.

For those who do have symptoms, the pain may initially feel like a really bad cramp in your back or side. You might think you tweaked a muscle, but like a slow burn, the pain grows worse.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the size of the stone. It’s usually where the stone is located,” says Dr. Ziemba.

People typically see a doctor once the kidney stone causes pain or discomfort. Other symptoms include:

  • Stomachache
  • Blood in the urine
  • Nausea
  • Fever and chills
  • Cloudy, smelly urine

To make a diagnosis, the physician collects the patient’s medical history and then conducts a physical exam and imaging tests. CT scans or x-rays can reveal the size and shape of any stones. Dr. Ziemba notes that about half of all kidney stones will pass on their own, while one-third require surgery.

Protecting Your Kidneys

People who develop kidney stones have a 50 percent chance of getting another stone within the next seven years, says the National Kidney Foundation. The stones aren’t dangerous in the short term, but do increase a person’s overall risk for chronic kidney disease.

For patients who experience recurring stones, Dr. Ziemba says, “It’s more about working to the best of our ability to figure out a plan. If someone is having three or four episodes a year, we try to get them down to one episode the next year.”

First and foremost, Dr. Ziemba tells patients: Drink more water, as opposed to soda or other sugary beverages. He encourages his patients to consume about three liters (100 oz.) of water daily.

It’s a serious challenge. “Compliance is extremely low because it’s so difficult,” Ziemba says. “You have to drink beyond when you’re thirsty.”

People also lose motivation because of the amount they then have to go to the bathroom. Making those trips every 20 minutes may not be difficult for an office worker, but for people who work outdoors or in construction, bathrooms may not be easily accessible.

Still, Dr. Ziemba says you have to try. “Keep a water bottle filled up next to you, and sip every time you take a break or look at it.”

He also encourages patients to follow a heart healthy diet—low sodium and a limited amount of red meat. “These dietary adjustments may not be a surprise to many people, but every little bit helps,” Dr. Ziemba says.

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