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Kidney Health

A Rocky Road: Treating Kidney Stones

Medically Reviewed On: November 26, 2013

By Christine Haran

Kidney stones have been described as more painful than childbirth. The severe pain that occurs when these stones abruptly move into the tight passageway between the kidney and the bladder frequently drives otherwise stoic men and women directly to the emergency room.

Approximately 10 percent of the US population has had a kidney stone, and the incidence of stones appears to be increasing. This increase may be due to the large amount of protein in the American meat-based diet, particularly among men 35 to 45, which is the age group most affected by kidney stones. Below, Dr. Stephen Leslie, an assistant clinical professor in the department of urology at the Medical College of Ohio, and the co-author of The Kidney Stone Handbook, discusses why kidney stones form and how they can be prevented and treated.

What is a kidney stone?
A kidney stone is caused by crystals that form in the kidney and in the urine. These crystals tend to stick together and eventually literally form a stone, something as hard as any rock you might find out in your driveway.

A kidney stone attack is marked by sudden, very severe pain, usually in the side radiating towards the groin. It occurs when a stone, which may have been there for weeks or months, gets stuck in the passage between the kidney and bladder and causes an obstruction.

Why do kidney stones form?
The simple answer is that they form when there are more minerals and chemicals in the urine than the urine can reasonably dissolve. The most common contributing factor is not having enough fluid in your system. Another common cause is having high levels of several different chemicals that seem to promote stones. These include calcium, uric acid and oxalate.

Is the tendency to develop kidney stones inherited?
There is a strong tendency for related family members to get stones. For example, if one brother had a stone, there's a 50-50 chance the other one will. If one parent had a stone, there is roughly a 25 percent chance that a male offspring will, compared to about 12 percent chance that someone in the general population will form a stone.

Why is the condition more common in men than women?
We're not absolutely sure. The most likely answer has to do with what we eat and average general size. Since the typical man is substantially larger than the typical woman, the amount of waste product that men excrete is also somewhat higher. Meanwhile, the urinary system in men and women is roughly the same size.

Another explanation has to do with diet. Men tend to be more meat-and-potatoes, while women tend to eat more vegetables. Meat protein may increase risk of stone formation.

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