If you’ve had a kidney stone before, you’ll never forget the symptoms. If another hits, you’ll likely recognize the pain right away. But if you’re experiencing this intense pelvic pain for the first time, it might be alarming and confusing: Is it appendicitis? Food poisoning? A hernia?
Kidney stones form in the kidney (of course) when you have too much of certain minerals. Around 80 percent of kidney stones are caused by too much calcium in the urine, according to Urology Care Foundation (UCF).
The minerals and salts in the kidneys create tiny, jagged stones that range in size from a grain of sand to a pearl. They travel from the kidneys, down the ureter (the tube connecting the kidneys to the bladder), and are eventually passed through urination—but they cause intense pain along their path.
Because kidney stones occur in the urinary tract, they create a few key symptoms that differentiate them from other causes of severe and sudden stomach pain. Look for these telltale symptoms of a kidney stone.
Severe, sharp pain in your groin, back, or side. It may begin slowly, just feeling like gas pains, upset stomach, or menstrual cramps. It will continue to increase in intensity, and within an hour or two it may become so severe that you have difficulty walking or breathing. The kidney may also swell if the kidney stone gets lodged and blocks the flow of urine. An important note: if the pain is localized near your lower right side, it might be appendicitis.
Urgency to urinate. If the stone gets lodged anywhere between the kidneys or your urethra, it can create blockages and make you feel like you need to push something out. It might feel like you need to keep peeing even if you just went. (On the other hand, these could be symptoms of overactive bladder.)
Nausea and vomiting. Acute pain can send signals to the central medulla region of the brain, which can then trigger nausea and vomiting. Whenever intense pain comes around, nausea often follows.
Bloody, smelly, or cloudy urine. If enough red blood cells enter the urine, your pee may appear bloody; however, in many instances you may not be able to see blood with the naked eye or it may just appear cloudy, according to UCF.
Burning sensation when you pee. A jagged rock blocking your urine flow will naturally cause some discomfort as you try to pee. (Sometimes, a burning sensation can also be a sign of a UTI.)
Most of the time, you can pass kidney stones on your own—with the help of some pain relievers. Unfortunately, your standard ibuprofen might not be a match against severe kidney stone pain. Your doctor may be able to provide you with stronger pain relievers, if you need them.
If you repeatedly experience kidney stones, your doctor can also run tests to reveal what’s causing your stones, and more importantly, how to prevent them from recurring.