Kidney Stones Can Be More Painful Than Childbirth

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and bymuratdeniz/Getty

It was a Friday at midnight, and I was the only person in my house still awake. I was pacing the living room, taking a break every two minutes (yes, you read that correctly) to urinate. I was fully convinced I had a UTI and was counting down the dark hours until I could head into urgent care as soon as they opened. However, when I finally got there and they tested my urine, I didn’t have a UTI. The physician’s assistant told me that if my symptoms worsened, as I awaited the extended urine culture results, to go to the emergency room for a CT.

In the hours that followed, I continued to make frequent bathroom trips. I managed to fall asleep, only to awaken with right flank pain that felt like someone was stabbing and kicking me at the same time. Waves of pain washed over me, and once again I found myself pacing the house waiting for my husband to load all the kids into the van so we could head to the ER. After two hours spent in and out of the bathroom, a CT scan, and bloodwork, I was diagnosed with a kidney stone.

After I was discharged at four in the morning, I was standing in the ER waiting room, killing time until my husband would pull up to get me. The intake nurses, who were so kind and helpful, asked me what I was diagnosed with. When I told them it was a teeny kidney stone, their eyes grew wide and they nodded. One piped up, “Kidney stones can be more painful than childbirth.” This took me aback. How could something so small cause me such extraordinary agony? The other nurse shared that a kidney stone isn’t smooth and in fact, is like a burr tumbling around in my body. She added that she’s had patients come in doubled over in pain from kidney stones and that “they can take down the strongest, biggest people.”

After four days of urinating in a strainer (ew) and taking a medication that relaxes my urinary tract, I peed out the kidney stone. I woke up that morning with increased flank pain and a need to pee, and then as soon as the stone passed (gross), the pain began to fade. I looked down at the tiny brown rock and wondered, how could this tiny thing have caused so many problems? No doubt we would receive a large urgent care and emergency room bill, and I’d spent nearly a week of my life being tortured by the stone, unable to work, exercise, or take care of my kids.

Once I finally experienced blessed relief, I researched the dreaded stones, wondering what the heck they actually are and why in the world they are so painful. (Did I mention they are painful?)

What Is A Kidney Stone?

The Mayo Clinic reports that kidney stones are “hard deposits made of minerals and salts that form inside your kidneys.” There are four types of kidney stones: calcium stones, struvite stones, uric acid stones, and cystine stones. If you’re lucky enough to pass and catch your stone, the doctor can send it off to be analyzed. Figuring out what the stone is made of can help the patient reduce future risk of stones. For example, if you pass a calcium stone, the doctor may suggest a lower oxalate diet, lessening your vitamin D3 dose, or a change in your medications. Peeing into a strainer is anything but fun, but catching the stone to then have it analyzed can be incredibly helpful.

What Are The Symptoms Of A Kidney Stone?

Well, there’s the flank pain like I experienced, but that’s not the only symptom. Dr. Kavita Jackson, a board-certified emergency medicine physician, told Scary Mommy that a patient with a kidney stone may also experience “nausea and/or vomiting and notice blood in their urine.” The pain may be in the flank area “low back or abdomen which can come and go and radiate toward their groin.” As if that’s not bad enough, The Urology Care Foundation reports that if a person’s kidney stone becomes stuck in the ureter, it can block “the urine flow from that kidney and causes pain.” It’s important that you don’t try to self-diagnose. As Dr. Fenwa Famakinwa Milhouse, a board certified urologist, explains in her video, sometimes patients mistake back pain for kidney pain. Your best bet is to seek medical attention for any suspected kidney symptoms.

Why Are Kidney Stones So Painful?

Dr. Jackson shares that over a million (yes) people head to the Emergency Room each year because of a kidney stone. The stones can cause “excruciating pain” when they are passing. She reports that “In a study published in the Journal of Pain Research in 2017, 63.3% of women who had experienced both childbirth and kidney stones rated their kidney stone pain to be worse.” The Mayo Clinic reports that kidney stone pain “usually is the result of spasms triggered by a stone stuck in the ureter, coupled with pressure in the kidney from urine backup.”

How Are Kidney Stones Treated?

First, you’ll be relieved to know that “kidney stones are generally not life-threatening and the majority of patients are able to be discharged to follow up with a urologist,” according to Dr. Jackson. If a patient seeks emergency care for a kidney stone, Dr. Jackson says that the goal is to “control the pain and associated symptoms” as well as examine the patient for “any complications like an obstruction” or infection. I was discharged with the directions to drink as much water as possible, take my urinary tract relaxing medication, as well as take pain medication. The size of my stone was small enough that the doctor expected it to pass. However, stones that are too large or become stuck may require surgical intervention.

I was fortunate to have such a tiny stone that resolved rather quickly, though I can’t say that it was fast enough. I have never experienced so much pain in my life, not even when I had a mastectomy. (Yes, you read that correctly.) I don’t yet know what my stone was made of and if any modifications to my diet or medications will be necessary, but I sure hope I never, ever experience that kind of pain again.

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