Kidney stones are hard deposits made of minerals and salts that form inside your kidneys. They develop when your urine contains more crystal-forming substances – such as calcium, oxalate and uric acid – than the fluid in your urine can dilute. At times, the crystals combine to form hard, solid masses that can form stones.
Passing kidney stones can be quite painful. However, drinking enough water each day may help flush your system of substances that can form stones. In fact, not drinking enough water is one of several factors that can increase your risk of developing kidney stones in the first place.
So can upping your water intake make kidney stones go away? Let’s take a closer look at the connection between water and kidney stone prevention and treatment.
What are kidney stones?
Kidney stones form when mineral and salt deposits in your urine build up and stick together. This can result in stone-like lumps that vary in size. The medical term for this condition is nephrolithiasis.
Stones usually develop in your kidneys, which are the bean-shaped organs in your upper abdomen that filter waste from your blood and make urine. However, stones can form anywhere along your urinary tract. This includes your:
– Ureters – the tubes that connect your kidneys and bladder
– Urethra – the tube that carries urine from your bladder outside your body
There are four main types of kidney stones:
– Calcium stones – Most common type, made up of calcium combined with oxalate or phosphate.
– Uric acid stones – Form when your urine is persistently acidic.
– Struvite stones – Often result from urinary tract infections.
– Cystine stones – Rare and hereditary.
Kidney stones vary in size, from as small as a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball. Some stones stay in your kidneys, while others may travel down your urinary tract. Small stones may pass on their own, causing no issues. However, larger ones can get stuck along the way, blocking the flow of urine and often causing excruciating pain.
What are the symptoms of kidney stones?
Kidney stones often don’t cause symptoms until they start to move down your urinary tract. Possible signs and symptoms include:
– Severe pain in your side and back, below your ribs. This is the most common symptom, and the pain often comes in waves.
– Pain or burning during urination
– Cloudy or smelly urine
– Need to urinate more often or in greater amounts than usual
– Urinating only small amounts despite the urge to go
– Nausea and vomiting
– Blood in your urine – visible or microscopic
The location of your pain can provide clues on the stone’s location. For example, if you feel pain on your side, the stone may be in your kidney or ureter. Bladder stones often cause pain in your lower abdomen.
Some people may only experience mild discomfort, while others can suffer excruciating pain that is difficult to control. Up to 95% of kidney stone patients describe the pain as one of the worst they’ve ever experienced.
See your doctor right away if you experience any signs of kidney stones. Pain that comes in waves, pain accompanied by nausea and vomiting, and pain paired with cloudy or foul-smelling urine are key red flags.
What causes kidney stones?
There are several possible causes of kidney stones. The specific type of crystal or stone depends on factors like your urine’s mineral and salt content. However, kidney stones tend to form when:
– Your urine contains high levels of crystal-forming minerals and salts
– You don’t drink enough fluids – especially water – to dilute the mineral concentration in your urine
– Your urine has high levels of certain waste products due to medical conditions like hypercalciuria
– You have other kidney problems that affect your body’s ability to filter and eliminate waste
Factors that can increase your risk of developing kidney stones include:
– Dehydration or not drinking enough water
– Certain diets high in protein, sugar or sodium
– Digestive disorders like Crohn’s disease
– Your family medical history
– Living in a hot climate where you sweat more
– Taking certain medications or supplements
Stones can sometimes form without a specific cause. However, even one kidney stone puts you at higher risk for developing more. Within 5-10 years, over 50% of kidney stone patients have another stone.
How much water should you drink to prevent kidney stones?
Drinking enough water is one of the most important ways to lower your risk for kidney stones. Water helps dilute your urine so there’s less chance for minerals to crystalize and clump together.
Most kidney stone prevention guidelines recommend drinking at least 2-3 liters of fluid per day. That’s around 10-13 cups (80-130 ounces) based on an 8 ounce cup size. Ideally, you’ll want to sip water consistently throughout the entire day rather than chugging it all at once.
Aim to drink more if you:
– Live in a hot, humid climate
– Exercise or sweat a lot
– Eat a high protein, sodium or sugar diet
– Take certain medications like diuretics
– Have already had kidney stones before
– Have a medical condition like hypercalciuria that increases your risk
Don’t just rely on thirst as an indicator of your fluid needs, as you may get thirsty less often as you get older. Instead, make a conscious effort to drink water with all your meals and snacks. Carry a refillable water bottle with you for easy sipping throughout the day.
You may also get some fluid from other beverages and foods with high water content like juice, milk, tea, coffee, broths and fruits and veggies. However, water should make up most of your daily fluid intake.
Can drinking water flush out existing kidney stones?
What if you already have kidney stones – will chugging extra water help you pass them faster? Not necessarily.
Drinking more water – around 3-4 liters per day – may help flush your urinary system and facilitate the passage of small stones. But once kidney stones reach a certain size (around 5 mm), extra hydration alone is unlikely to make them budge.
Larger stones often get lodged in the narrow tubes connecting your kidneys to your bladder. No amount of liquid can generate enough force to push them out.
In fact, quickly increasing your fluid intake if you have large stones could actually lead to complications like:
– Making the stones grow larger. While paradoxical, flooding your urinary system may provide more crystal-forming minerals to add on to existing stones.
– Causing a kidney stone blockage. More urine volume could push a lodged stone to suddenly shift positions, blocking urine flow.
– Diluting your urine too much. Very dilute urine may be less effective at naturally flushing out waste.
So while staying hydrated is key for preventing more stones, guzzling water alone isn’t a solution for treating painful, stuck kidney stones. You’ll need other medical interventions, which may include:
– Pain medication
– Alpha blocker medication to help relax your ureter
– Lithotripsy to break up stones using sound waves
– Surgery to remove very large stones
Talk to your urologist if you’re already dealing with painful kidney stones. Follow their recommendations on fluid intake and medical management.
Tips for drinking more water
If you want to stay well hydrated to avoid future kidney stones, follow these water drinking tips:
– Carry a refillable water bottle or tumbler everywhere you go. Drink from it regularly, not just when thirsty.
– Set a daily goal for how many ounces or liters of water to drink. Track your intake.
– Drink a glass of water with every meal and snack.
– Opt for water over other beverages like soda, juices and sports drinks.
– Add wedge of lime or lemon to help improve water’s flavor
– Try sparkling water for a soda-like experience without sugar or calories
– Consume water-rich foods like fruits and vegetables
– Limit alcohol and caffeinated drinks which can increase fluid loss
– Exercise regularly to sweat and circulate more fluids through your body
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience any symptoms of kidney stones, like:
– Severe pain in your back or side
– Pain with urination
– Blood in your urine
– Fever and chills
– Inability to pass urine
Quick treatment is vital, as kidney stones can sometimes lead to serious complications like permanent kidney damage or sepsis if left unchecked.
See your doctor if you’ve had kidney stones before and want to prevent recurrence. They can order testing to help determine the underlying cause and suggest dietary changes that may help reduce your future risk.
The bottom line
Increasing your daily water intake can help flush your kidneys and urinary system of excess minerals and salts that create kidney stones. Drinking enough water is a key way to lower your risk of developing new kidney stones.
However, once large stones form and become lodged in your urinary tract, chugging extra water alone won’t be enough to pass them. Additional medical treatments are typically required to break down existing stones causing blockages, pain and other symptoms.
Drink plenty of fluids daily, but see a doctor right away if you suspect you have kidney stones. Quick diagnosis and treatment can help relieve discomfort and prevent complications like infection and permanent kidney damage.