Kidney Stones Overview
The kidney acts as a filter for blood, removing waste products from the body and making urine. It also helps regulate electrolyte levels that are important for body function. Urine drains from the kidney through a narrow tube called the ureter into the bladder. When the bladder fills and there is an urge to urinate, the bladder empties to the outside through the urethra, a much wider tube than the ureter.
In some people, chemicals crystallize in the urine and form the beginning, or nidus, of a kidney stone. These stones are very tiny when they form, smaller than a grain of sand, but gradually can grow over time to an inch or larger. Urolithiasis is the term that refers to the presence of stones in the urinary tract, while nephrolithiasis refers to kidney stones and ureterolithiasis refers to stones lodged in the ureter. The size of the stone doesn't matter as much as where it is located and whether it obstructs or prevents urine from draining.
When the stone sits in the kidney, it rarely causes problems, but when it falls into the ureter, it acts like a dam. As the kidney continues to function and make urine, pressure builds up behind the stone and causes the kidney to swell. This pressure is what causes the pain of a kidney stone, but it also helps push the stone along the course of the ureter. When the stone enters the bladder, the obstruction in the ureter is relieved and the symptoms of a kidney stone are resolved.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/1/2014
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