What causes kidney stones?

It is estimated that 1 in 10 people will have a kidney stone at some point in their lives. Understanding the symptoms and potential causes may help you know what to expect.

What is a kidney stone?

A kidney stone is a solid piece of material that forms in the kidney from substances in the urine. The shapes and sizes vary — it could be as small as a grain of salt or as large as a golf ball.

While most kidney stones pass out of the body on their own, there are instances when they may get stuck in the urinary tract and block the flow of urine, which may lead to painful symptoms.

What causes kidney stones?

Although there is no single cause for kidney stones, research shows several factors may increase your risk of developing the condition.

You are more likely to be diagnosed with kidney stones if you have a family history. There’s also an increased risk to develop kidney stones again, after having them once. Kidney stones can appear at any time, but people between the ages of 40 and 60 are most likely to develop the condition. Kidney stones are also more common in men.

Dehydration is one reason kidney stones may develop. When a person is dehydrated, they produce less water in their urine – leading the urine to become concentrated with minerals and compounds that can cluster to form stones.

Certain conditions may also cause kidney stones, such as:

What are the symptoms of kidney stones?

Experts say the pain and symptoms caused by kidney stones may change if the stones shift to a different location or as they move through your urinary tract.

Possible signs and symptoms include:

  • Severe pain in the back, lower abdomen and groin
  • Pain or burning sensation while urinating
  • Pink, red or brown urine
  • Cloudy or urine odor
  • Increased urination
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever and chills

If you experience any symptoms that cause concern, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

How are kidney stones diagnosed and treated?

Doctors look at your medical history, conduct a physical exam and rely on tests to diagnose kidney stones.

The treatment heavily depends on the type of stones, their size and location in the body. Treatment may include removing the stones or breaking them into small pieces. Depending on patient, doctors may also recommend helping to remove the stones by drinking water, altering their diet or taking medication.

“If you have any symptoms or you’re concerned about your chances of getting a kidney stone, visit your primary care provider,” said Dr. Nicole Brady, chief medical officer, UnitedHealthcare of Wisconsin and Michigan. “Be sure to bring a list of your symptoms, health history, medications, supplements, concerns and questions. Depending on how the conversation goes, you may need a test or a referral to a urologist.”

How can you help avoid kidney stones?

Eating a healthy diet and maintaining proper hydration — especially when you’re exercising or sweating a lot — are important factors to help prevent kidney stones. Unless you have kidney failure, health care professionals recommend drinking six to eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day. You may want to consider eating oxalate-rich foods, like peanuts, rhubarb, spinach or beets, in moderation or combining those foods with calcium. Same goes for food with high levels of purines, often found in red meat or shellfish.

To learn more about kidney stones, and when to see a doctor if you have concerns, visit uhc.com.