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How are Kidney Stones Treated?

Treatment depends on the type of stone, how bad it is and the length of time you have had symptoms. There are different treatments to choose from. It is important to talk to your health care provider about what is best for you.

Wait for the stone to pass by itself

Often you can simply wait for the stone to pass. Smaller stones are more likely than larger stones to pass on their own.

Waiting up to four to six weeks for the stone to pass is safe as long as the pain is bearable, there are no signs of infection, the kidney is not completely blocked and the stone is small enough that it is likely to pass. While waiting for the stone to pass, you should drink normal amounts of water. You may need pain medication when there is discomfort.

Medication

Certain medications have been shown to improve the chance that a stone will pass. The most common medication prescribed for this reason is tamsulosin. Tamsulosin (Flomax) relaxes the ureter, making it easier for the stone to pass. You may also need pain and anti-nausea medicine as you wait to pass the stone.

Surgery

  • Surgery may be needed to remove a stone from the ureter or kidney if:
  • The stone fails to pass.
  • The pain is too great to wait for the stone to pass.
  • The stone is affecting kidney function. Small stones in the kidney may be left alone if they are not causing pain or infection. Some people choose to have their small stones removed. They do this because they are afraid the stone will unexpectedly start to pass and cause pain.

Kidney stones should be removed by surgery if they cause repeated infections in the urine or because they are blocking the flow of urine from the kidney. Today, surgery usually involves small or no incisions (cuts), minor pain and minimal time off work.

Surgeries to remove stones in the kidneys or ureters are:

Shock wave lithotripsy (SWL)

Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) for kidney stones
Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) for kidney stones
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Shock Wave Lithotripsy (SWL) is used to treat stones in the kidney and ureter. Shock waves are focused on the stone using X-rays or ultrasound to pinpoint the stone. Repeated firing of shock waves on the stone usually causes the stone to break into small pieces. These smaller pieces of stones pass out in the urine over a few weeks.

Because of possible discomfort caused by the shock waves and the need to control breathing during the procedure, some form of anesthesia is often needed. SWL does not work well on hard stones, such as cystine, some types of calcium oxalate and calcium phosphate stones, or very large stones.

With SWL, you may go home the same day as the procedure. You may be able to resume normal activities in two to three days. You may also be given a strainer to collect the stone pieces as they pass. These pieces will be sent to the laboratory to be tested.

Although SWL is widely used and considered very safe, it can still cause side effects. You may have blood in your urine for a few days after treatment. Most stone pieces pass painlessly. Larger pieces may get stuck in the ureter, causing pain and needing other removal procedures.

Ureteroscopy (URS)

Ureteroscopic Removal of Stones
Ureteroscopic Removal of Stones
© 2010 Terese Winslow, U.S. Govt. has certain rights
Medical Illustration Copyright © 2015 Nucleus Medical Media, All rights reserved

Ureteroscopy (URS) is used to treat stones in the kidney and ureter. URS involves passing a very small telescope, called an ureteroscope, into the bladder, up the ureter and into the kidney. Rigid telescopes are used for stones in the lower part of the ureter near the bladder. Flexible telescopes are used to treat stones in the upper ureter and kidney.

The ureteroscope lets the urologist see the stone without making an incision (cuts). General anesthesia keeps you comfortable during the URS procedure. Once the urologist sees the stone with the ureteroscope, a small, basket-like device grabs smaller stones and removes them. If a stone is too large to remove in one piece, it can be broken into smaller pieces with a laser or other stone-breaking tools.

Once the stone has been removed whole or in pieces, the health care provider may place a temporary stent in the ureter. A stent is a tiny, rigid plastic tube that helps hold the ureter open so that urine can drain from the kidney into the bladder. Unlike a catheter or PCNL drain tube, this tube is completely within the body and does not require an external bag to collect urine.

You may go home the same day as the URS and can begin normal activities in two to three days. If your urologist places a stent, he or she will remove it four to 10 days later. Sometimes a string is left on the end of the stent so you can remove it on your own. It is very important that the stent is removed when your health care provider tells you. Leaving the stent in for long periods can cause an infection and loss of kidney function.

Percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL)

Percutaneous Nephrolithotripsy
Percutaneous Nephrolithotripsy
Medical Illustration: www.KidneyStoners.org

Percutaneous Lithotripsy (PCNL) is the best treatment for large stones in the kidney. General anesthesia is needed to do a PCNL. PCNL involves making a half-inch incision (cut) in the back or side, just large enough to allow a rigid telescope (nephroscope) to be passed into the hollow center part of the kidney where the stone is located.

An instrument passed through the nephroscope breaks up the stone and suctions out the pieces. The ability to suction pieces makes PCNL the best treatment choice for large stones.

After the PCNL, a tube is usually left in the kidney to drain urine into a bag outside of the body. This will allow for drainage of urine and stop any bleeding. The tube is left in overnight or for a few days. You may have to stay in the hospital overnight after this operation.

Your urologist may choose to do X-rays while you are still in the hospital to see if any stone pieces remain. If there are any, your urologist may want to look back into the kidney with a telescope again to remove them. You can begin normal activities after about one-to-two weeks.

Other surgery

Other kidney surgery is rarely used to remove stones. Open, laparoscopic or robotic surgery may be used only if all other less invasive procedures fail.