Half a million Americans go to the emergency room annually for kidney stone issues, and one in every 10 people in the United States will develop a kidney stone during his or her lifetime.
Kidney stones are exactly what they sound like — accumulations of minerals like calcium that crystallize into stone-like masses inside kidneys. Their formation isn’t necessarily painful, but passing them can be. If a stone gets lodged in a ureter, it can cause a clog that backs up urine in the kidneys. While stones aren’t life-threatening, complications can include kidney injury and an increased risk of urinary infection.
Alan C. Pao is Assistant Professor of Nephrology and Urology at Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System. He practices at Stanford Hospital and Clinics. Dr. Pao says it’s not well understood why kidney stones form, but patients on high-meat and high-sodium diets or who don’t drink enough fluids are typically more at risk for stone recurrence. And appropriate treatments to prevent recurring kidney stones aren’t one size fits all. In fact, they depend on the diet, health, and stone type of each stone-former.
The secret to preventing stones, Pao says, is in a patient’s urine. Urine contents can reveal what minerals are in excess or in deficiency, and those mineral levels can help physicians determine how to help patients. That’s why a simple procedure like 24-hour urine collection is so vital — it provides a road map for improved treatment.
Dr. Pao is researching kidney stone mysteries, like why patients with normal-looking 24-hour urine collections still develop recurrent stones. That occasional disconnect has also inspired him to work with another colleague, Joseph C. Liao MD, Associate Professor of Urology, on a new gadget that will allow patients to spot check their urine throughout the day and provide immediate feedback for how diet and medications are affecting their stone risk.