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The Various Types of Kidney Stone Pain

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I have renal tubular acidosis, which causes me to constantly make kidney stones. The pain of a kidney stone really depends on many factors. I’ve been asked this question so many times, so I’ve decided to list the differences.

Sand/gravel: These are very tiny stones that look like little pieces of sand. If you pass one or two, you may not even feel it, or it will feel like some scratchy, irritating pain. If you pass big clumps of these at once, it can be quite painful. As painful as a small stone, or even as painful as a large stone, if the clump of them is very sharp. It can feel like you have a bad UTI when you’re passing these tiny stones and it can cause anywhere from minor pain to quite bad renal colic.

Little stones: These stones are bigger than sand, but can pass on their own, usually. My docs told me that women can successfully pass stones three mm and smaller. Men can pass ones a little bit larger. I’ve had some three-mm ones that were very difficult to pass, and got stuck on the way down, in various areas. So, I consider three-mm stones to be pretty awful.

Smaller than three mm: Painful. Quite painful. Enough to make you drop to the floor when they cause spasms. These are around the size that most people who have passed stones without needing surgery have had. They can cause serious renal colic pain and hurt quite a bit as they travel. Some people faint, even from these small stones, but some people have a fairly easy time. Here’s where something else comes in to play. Some stones are very jagged and sharp. They are the worst of these small stones. They tear your tissues and cause bleeding, more pain and often cause infection in the tissues that were torn. Smoother stones are much easier to pass and far less painful. Also, men have larger/wider urethras than women, so they have an easier time passing this size of stone.

Stones aren’t all the same. I’ve passed more than I could ever keep track of in my lifetime and they are all different.


Large stones: These suckers are the ones doctors talk about when they say kidney stones are the most painful thing a person can go through. These stones, when they move in the kidney, cause an enormous amount of pain. When they try to pass out of the kidney, they get stuck either at the end of the kidney right before the ureter, or in the ureter. The ureter is the tube between the kidney and the bladder. Urine flows through the ureter in order to get to the bladder. It then flows from the bladder into the urethra when you urinate.

Getting a stone stuck in your ureter is agony. It blocks the urine flow, blocks the kidney, so urine starts to build up inside the kidney. The kidney starts to swell and swell and swell. This is extremely dangerous, and emergency surgery is needed or you could die.

A stone can also get stuck in the urethra, if it happened to somehow make it into the bladder. This is also very dangerous as it causes your urine to back up in your bladder and both kidneys.

When I’ve had large stones stuck in my ureter, I’ve hallucinated, vomited, screamed and cried. I’ve never fainted from one. I kind of wish I would. Nothing can help ease this pain. It is unbearable. The renal colic is like nothing I can explain, but I’ll try. Imagine your kidney is a balloon. You continue to keep filling it, until it is ready to burst and then you still keep filling it. But it’s not bursting. It needs to burst. But it’s not. It’s starts to spasm. Clench. Burn. Squeeze. It’s like a knife is cutting you while a vice is squeezing you. Sharp pains radiate from your kidney, down into your ureter and bladder and pain is all you can feel. All you know. You can’t sit, lie down, stand. Nothing helps.

I’ve had some different things done, surgically, depending on where the stone was stuck.

One time, mine was close enough to my bladder, had made it far enough down the ureter, that the surgeon was able to go in and do a “basket extraction.” What they do is put you out, insert a device into your urethra, through your bladder, and then into the ureter. The basket device grabs the stone and they pull it out.

Another time, my stone was too high up. Still in my kidney, but blocking the ureter, so no urine was able to exit my kidney. So, they had two options, open up my back and kidney and put a tube into my kidney in order to drain it and save my life. Or, they can put a stent into the ureter. The stent prevents the stone from obstructing the flow of urine. Keeps the ureter open for business. I chose the stent option.

After they inserted the stent, I then had to go for lithotripsy treatments, to blast the stone into smaller, passable pieces. Initially, when they first tried to do lithotripsy, my stone was not showing up on X-ray. They can’t blindly do this treatment, it would damage the kidney, so, I had to keep going back until the pesky stone showed up again, so they could zap it.

They keep the stent in you until you’ve passed the majority of small stone pieces, in order to prevent the kidney from being obstructed again. So, I had the stent in me for a few months while I passed all the stones. I felt pretty good with the stent, although it did take some getting used to. It basically looks like a bent wire coat hanger. It feels very strange to sit and bend over, when a stent is inside you. When they removed the stent they didn’t even sedate me. I was terrified. They just used a topical numbing agent. But, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared.

So, there are various levels of kidney stone pain. Just because you, or someone you know, has had one, the pain experience can be vastly different. The only times when the pain has been consistent, in my experience, is when the kidney is obstructed. Obstructed pain always feels the same. And I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

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Thinkstock photo via Tharakorn.

Originally published: May 31, 2017
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