Kidney Stone: Emergency Room or Urgent Care?

Kidney stones are quite painful. According to the National Kidney Foundation, around 8% of people in the United States develop kidney stones every year. The stones cause uncomfortable symptoms, and intense pain as they pass through the urinary tract. Since they pass through on their own in some cases, emergency medical treatment isn’t always necessary. But how can patients know the difference between a kidney stone that needs to be treated in the Emergency Department and one that can be treated by an Urgent Care facility? First, it helps to know what is a kidney stone.

kidney stone emergency room or urgent careWhat Exactly Is a Kidney Stone?

Urine is the body’s way of getting rid of waste. When there isn’t enough liquid in the urinary system, the waste can start to stick together. It forms small crystals. Normally, these crystals are carried away by the liquid in the urine. If the crystals are made of certain elements, they can make a kidney stone. Those elements are:

  • Calcium
  • Oxalate
  • Urate
  • Cystine
  • Xanthine
  • Phosphate

In some cases, the stone is washed out of the urinary tract easily. If the stone gets too big, it can block urine from moving through the body properly. It will cause discomfort for the patient, and may require medical intervention.

Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Stones

According to the Mayo Clinic, intense pain in the lower back could be a kidney stone. Some patients experience nausea and fever also. Urinary changes are another common symptom. When a patient has a kidney stone, urine may be cloudy or malodorous.

emergency roomUrgent Care or Emergency Room for a Kidney Stone?

Patients who are experiencing these symptoms of a kidney stone should go to the doctor. The question many patients ask is where to see the doctor. If urgent treatment isn’t necessary, many patients may prefer to avoid the long wait times of the emergency room. If a condition can be treated in urgent care, it’s usually more convenient, more comfortable, and faster for the patient.

If a patient is experiencing severe pain, the Emergency Department is the safest option. Kidney stones are usually diagnosed with a CT scan or ultrasound. Doctors can get some information about potential kidney stones through blood and urine samples, but imaging is often necessary to confirm stones in the urinary tract. This type of imaging may not be available at Urgent Care facilities.

Urgent Care may be appropriate for patients with very mild symptoms. However, patients who go to Urgent Care for suspected kidney stones may be sent to the Emergency Department if the Urgent Care facility is unable to diagnose kidney stones definitively.

So the answer to kidney stone: emergency room or urgent care? If the symptoms are mild, you can start with urgent care. If not, go to the E.R.

kidney stones treatmentTreating Kidney Stones

The treatments for kidney stones differ based on the size of the stone and its placement in the urinary tract. Small stones may not need any treatment at all. If a stone is small enough, it can exit the urinary tract on its own. Doctors may recommend hydration and analgesics for small stones. Sometimes doctors may prescribe a medication that relaxes the urinary tract. This will help small and medium stones pass through on their own.

For larger stones, or stones that are in a precarious location, a procedure may be required to remove the stones. Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy is a procedure that is commonly used to break up kidney stones that cannot pass on their own. This procedure uses sound waves to blast the stone apart. The good thing about ESWL is that it’s not invasive. Since it uses sound waves, it can be done without any incision into the body. Unfortunately, it does sometimes cause pain and discomfort. In some rare cases, surgery is required to remove kidney stones.

Preventing Kidney Stones

After a kidney stone passes, either on its own or by a procedure, doctors will analyze the stone to determine its cause. Depending on the element that caused the stone, doctors may recommend a change in diet. For example, if a stone is made up of oxalate, doctors often tell patients to reduce their intake of foods containing oxalate, like beets and spinach. No matter what the stone is made out of, the best way to prevent recurring kidney stones is through proper hydration.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not to go to the Emergency Department or Urgent Care for a potential kidney stone, remember that sudden, intense pain requires emergency treatment.

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