Are Kidney Stones Inherited?

If you or a family member have ever had the painful experience of developing and passing kidney stones, you may have wondered whether kidney stones run in families. There are many reasons why a kidney stone may develop, and genes may increase your likelihood of experiencing kidney stones. At the same time, several lifestyle factors may also raise or lower your risk.

Keep reading to learn more about kidney stones, their causes, and how doctors treat them. 

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What are kidney stones?

Kidney stones are solid crystals or masses that form in your kidneys. Most kidney stones are calcium and oxalate-based, but they may contain a few substances. Others contain uric acid, cystine, or other common minerals like magnesium, phosphate, and calcium carbonate. 

Kidney stones can impact your urinary tract, including your kidneys and bladder, and sometimes create blockages that can lead to severe pain. Passing kidney stones, particularly large ones, can be painful. Some kidney stones simply pass on their own, while others may require medical treatment. 

Symptoms of kidney stones

If kidney stones are small enough, they may pass through your urinary system without you noticing. When they become larger, you usually can't feel anything until they begin to exit your kidney and pass through your ureters. These are the tubes that connect your kidneys to your bladder.

If the kidney stones block your urine flow, it can lead to the following symptoms:

  • Burning sensation while urinating

  • Pain in the side or back, just below the ribs

  • Pain that also radiates to the groin and lower abdomen

  • Pink, brown, or red urine

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Feeling the need to urinate but not producing much urine

Your pain, and other unpleasant symptoms, may fluctuate as the stones pass through your urinary tract. Most kidney stones won't cause permanent damage, but severe ones may need medical attention. If your kidney stones have led to an infection and you have a fever with other symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. 

Are kidney stones caused by genes or lifestyle?

Kidney stones have many potential causes, but heredity may be a factor. People who have an immediate family member with kidney stones are more likely to develop kidney stones than those who don't.

Still, even if all of your immediate family members have a history of kidney stones, there’s no guarantee that you will develop them. 

Several lifestyle factors can lower or raise your risk of kidney stones besides your genes.

Other risk factors for kidney stones

Besides family history, other risk factors may increase your risk of developing kidney stones:

  • Eating a diet high in sodium, sugar, and protein

  • Having a high body mass index

  • Experiencing digestive issues, like chronic diarrhea or inflammatory bowel disease

  • Taking some medications and supplements

  • Having other medical conditions, like hyperparathyroidism

  • Being dehydrated frequently

  • Having a personal history of kidney stones

Although some of the above risk factors may be out of your control, you can correct factors like dehydration or a high-sodium diet with lifestyle changes. 

Your doctor may also be able to suggest other lifestyle changes or medical interventions that reduce how often you experience kidney stones. 

How can you prevent kidney stones?

Even if you carry a risk of developing kidney stones because of family history, there are a few ways to lower your risk: 

Staying hydrated

When water levels get too low, mineral crystals form and create kidney stones. Staying hydrated, especially if you live in a hot environment or sweat a lot during the day, can be one of the best ways to prevent kidney stones from forming. 

Staying hydrated mostly means drinking more water. It may be tempting to increase your fluid intake by reaching for a soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage, but these can increase your risk of developing kidney stones. Water is the best type of fluid for hydration.

Eating a balanced diet

Those who eat diets high in sodium, sugar, and protein are more likely to experience kidney stones. Diets high in oxalate can also contribute to kidney stone risk, so you may benefit from reducing your intake of oxalate-rich foods. 

Some foods that are high in oxalate include: 

  • Spinach

  • Chocolate

  • Nuts

  • Tea

  • Rhubarb

  • Beets

Many people also find it helpful to reduce their animal protein intake, including eggs and dairy.

Exercising

Exercise can provide numerous benefits, including better moods, improved sleep, and stronger bones and muscles. Exercise can also help you reduce or maintain your weight, which can prevent kidney stones from forming. 

Exercise may prevent kidney stones even if you are already at a healthy weight. Even exercise as light as tending to a garden seems to have some benefits for preventing kidney stones. If you don't already have an exercise routine, going for a short walk around the neighborhood can be a great place to start. 

When to see a doctor

Even though you can pass some kidney stones, see a doctor if you experience the following:

  • Difficulty passing urine 

  • Bloody urine

  • Fever and chills

  • Severe pain that makes it difficult to find a comfortable position

Your doctor may order a blood or urine test to look at your kidney health and rule out other possible sources of your symptoms. They may also run an imaging test to look for kidney stones. 

Treatment options for kidney stones

After your doctor has diagnosed you with kidney stones, they may recommend trying to pass the kidney stones on your own. If so, it may be helpful to drink plenty of fluids and take pain relievers to make yourself more comfortable until they pass. 

They can also prescribe alpha-blockers, medications that help your ureter relax, allowing the kidney stones to pass through more quickly.  If the stones are large enough, or they are causing severe enough pain, your doctor may also recommend one of a few different treatment options, including:

Sound waves

If your kidney stones are too large to pass on their own, your doctor may opt for extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL). ESWL targets sound waves at the stone, breaking them into smaller pieces that you can pass easier. 

Your doctor will use an ultrasound-like probe externally placed over your back or abdomen to target the stone. Some people who undergo ESWL experience moderate pain, so your doctor may sedate you or use anesthesia. This procedure usually takes under an hour. 

Scope removal

For smaller stones in your kidney or ureter, your doctor may use a small scope with a camera attached to locate the kidney stone. Once your doctor has found the stone, they can use tools to break it apart for you to pass through your urine, or they can remove it for you. This procedure often requires anesthesia. 

Surgery

If other treatment options don't work to remove your kidney stone, your doctor may recommend a type of surgery called percutaneous nephrolithotomy. This procedure involves your doctor making a small incision in your back and using special tools to remove the stones. It typically requires general anesthesia, and you may need to stay in the hospital for a few days to recover. 

The lowdown

Kidney stones have genetic links and run in families, but several lifestyle factors and traits can also increase your risk. Kidney stones can create significant discomfort; if they get severe enough, they may require medical attention. Still, most don’t cause permanent damage, and you can pass them without even knowing.

If you are developing kidney stones several times a year, talk about potential lifestyle changes with your doctor. They may suggest treatment options to reduce the frequency you develop kidney stones.

Have you considered clinical trials for Kidney disease?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Kidney disease, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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