Nearly 20 years ago, Kellie Maxwell experienced her first kidney stone attack.
“I had no idea what was happening,” the Valparaiso resident recalled. “I was in so much pain I called an ambulance. The pain was comparable to giving birth.”
Once in the emergency room, medical staff treated Maxwell with pain medications and told her to follow up with a urologist.
“I’ve seen several since and have had more surgeries than I can count,” she said.
Now 41, Maxwell has tried increasing her water intake, watching her diet and taking different medications to help reduce the risk of kidney stones recurring. It can be frustrating, she said, especially since doctors don’t know why she is more prone to developing them.
Kidney stones are common — affecting more than 1 in 10 people, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Some studies show that among those who have passed one kidney stone, there is a significant chance that kidney stones can recur — as much as a 60% to 80% chance over the course of a lifetime.
Kidney stones are hard deposits that are made of minerals and salts. They form inside a person’s kidneys when urine becomes concentrated. This allows the minerals to crystalize and stick together.
They can vary in size and shape — as small as a grain of sand to as large as a pea. Rarely, they can reach golf ball size.
When a person passes the kidney stones, it can be a painful experience.
Dr. John Lynam, a urologist with Northwest Medical Group, said those who have kidney stones typically feel a sharp pain in their back, side, lower abdomen or groin. A person may notice blood in the urine as well.
Left untreated, kidney stones can cause serious complications, he said. While a smaller kidney stone may pass through a person’s urinary tract on its own, causing little or no pain, a larger kidney stone can get stuck along the way and block the flow of urine.
If left untreated, a patient can develop a urinary tract infection or worse, Lynam said.
“This increases the risk of infection and sepsis,” he said.
If this occurs, a patient could begin experiencing fever, chills and kidney issues. The stone could also fill the size of the kidney and cause it to lose function.
“If the obstruction is removed, there’s a chance that kidney function can be restored,” Lynam said.
Maxwell said she knows that it’s time to seek help when she starts experiencing “unbearable lower back pain and have visible blood in my urine.”
She advises others to see a doctor if they suspect they have kidney stones.
Although it’s not yet clear why Maxwell has had recurring kidney stones for nearly two decades, doctors said there are factors that may put individuals at risk for developing them, such as family history, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity or if a person doesn’t get enough fluids.
“To diagnose kidney stones, we use the patient’s medical history, a physical exam and tests, which also may show problems that caused a kidney stone to form,” Lynam said.
Treatment usually depends on the size, location and composition of the kidney stones, he said.
“Patients may be able to prevent kidney stones by drinking enough water, changing the way they eat or taking medicines,” he said.