Kidney stones are a relatively common condition characterized by minerals building up inside the kidneys to form solid masses. These masses, or stones, can result in numerous unpleasant symptoms, especially when they move from the kidney to the ureter, the tube that connects your kidneys to your bladder.
Kidney stones can be made up of several different types of substances, but the most common is calcium oxalate. Some stones can be passed on their own if you drink plenty of fluids and take painkillers, but others require medical interventions to resolve.
Some conditions produce effects similar to kidney stones, but they may require completely different treatments to help them resolve. That’s why it’s important to learn about the symptoms of kidney stones and other conditions that can mimic kidney stone pain.
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Kidney stones can range in size from a single grain of sand up to a golf ball. However, most kidney stones are about the size of a chickpea. Especially small stones may pass without you even noticing, but those larger in size can produce notable symptoms, including:
Feeling the urge to urinate more often
Being unable to urinate regularly
Feeling severe pain in your lower back or sides that may come and go
Experiencing nausea and vomiting
Kidney stones don't typically create permanent damage to your urinary system, and you may not need medical intervention for them to pass through. However, you should see your doctor if your symptoms become more severe.
Immediate medical attention is recommended if you have the following symptoms:
Pain along with nausea, vomiting, fever, or chills
Pain that makes it impossible to find a comfortable position
Not every person with kidney stones will experience all the above signs, but it is helpful to be aware of such symptoms, especially if you notice changes in your urine.
If you are experiencing the above symptoms and decide to visit your doctor, they will most likely order blood and urine tests to look at kidney function and rule out other possible conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
Your doctor may also order imaging tests, which can help them determine where your kidney stones are located, how they are shaped, how many you have, and how large they are. These can all play a role in determining the most effective treatments.
From there, your doctor may prescribe a painkiller to keep you more comfortable until the stones pass on their own, or they may prescribe medications to help the muscles of your ureter relax. This may allow kidney stones to pass through easily and with less pain. If your kidney stones are large enough, your doctor may use sound waves to break them into smaller bits to be passed, or you may need surgery.
If you are experiencing pain typically associated with kidney stones, but you don't end up having them, it’s likely that another condition is the source. Here are a few most common conditions that mimic kidney stone pain.
Because kidney stones impact your urinary system, confusing their symptoms with a urinary tract infection (UTI) can be easy. UTIs can produce intense pain in your urinary system that presents in your lower abdomen, groin, or bladder. You may also see bloody or cloudy urine, and you may have more frequent urges to urinate without being able to produce much urine.
The infection can travel through your ureter and infect your kidneys if left untreated. Kidney infections can be dangerous, as the infection can spread throughout your body through your blood.
Kidney infections can also produce symptoms similar to kidney stones, such as:
Bloody or cloudy urine
Nausea and vomiting
Back or side pain
When it comes to kidney infections, receiving treatment sooner rather than later is better. If caught soon enough, you may be able to recover with antibiotics alone. More severe infections may require hospitalization.
Appendicitis is an infection of your appendix, which is located on the lower right part of the abdomen. Your appendix is a small pouch attached to your colon, which has long been rumored to be a "useless" part of the body. Researchers¹ still aren't completely sure what its function is, but it is clear that it must be treated and potentially removed when it becomes infected.
When appendicitis comes about, it often causes pain around your belly button, which can then move to other areas of your abdomen. When the inflammation becomes worse, so do the pain and associated symptoms, such as:
Nausea and vomiting
Sudden pain on the right side of the abdomen
Pain that feels worse when you make sudden movements
Loss of appetite
Some of the above symptoms are consistent with kidney stones too, which is why it can be difficult to determine the source of your symptoms without going to the doctor. If you are experiencing the above symptoms that seem to worsen, you must see your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
Most of us have experienced a virus or the flu at least once, which can be very unpleasant. Some viruses, and the flu, can cause symptoms that are similar enough to kidney stones that can make it easy to confuse the two, like:
Muscle pain and body aches
A person experiencing a viral infection or the flu won't typically experience lower back and abdominal pain consistent with kidney stones. However, it may still be a good idea to see a doctor to figure out exactly what you are suffering from. This can allow you to get the treatment you need to feel better sooner.
Women who have experienced menstrual cramps can attest that they are not pleasant. Some women have so severe menstrual cramps that it can be difficult to determine whether the pain is caused by menstrual cramps or kidney stones. Some women also report that kidney stones can feel a bit like ovarian pain, pelvic cramping, or stomach cramps.
The main differences between menstrual cramps and kidney stones are that kidney stones are typically felt in the lower back, and they can produce cloudy or foul-smelling urine. Those symptoms are not typical with menstrual cramps. If you experience fever, chills, and other symptoms consistent with kidney stones, it is best to see your doctor to get a proper diagnosis.
Kidney stone pain, or “renal colic” as it is sometimes referred to, will often resolve as soon as the stone is passed. This can vary depending on the size and position of the stone. Stones less than 4mm in diameter can usually pass within a week or two, but larger stones may take two to three weeks.
You are more likely to feel the pain associated with kidney stones once they leave your kidney and enter your ureter. This is especially true if they are large enough to block urine flow and cause infection.
Once kidney stones reach your bladder, they are usually excreted within a few days. For older men with larger prostates, it may take even longer than this after they reach the bladder, but you may not experience as much pain. If you don't pass your kidney stone after several weeks, it may be time to see your doctor.
Kidney stones impact approximately 10%² of the U.S. population, which appears to have increased in recent years. Kidney stones can result in severe pain, even if they can be passed all on their own. If they don't pass on their own in a short time, it's a good idea to speak with your doctor to see if treatment is needed or if your pain may be caused by other conditions.
UTIs, for example, can become extremely dangerous if they are not treated in time and are allowed to progress to kidney infections. If you have doubts about what is causing your pain, you should see your doctor for a diagnosis and the right treatment options.
If you have had several kidney stones before and are sure that this is the source of your pain, continue monitoring your symptoms. Visit a doctor if you develop a fever and other symptoms consistent with infections.