Lithotripsy: What to Expect

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Kidney stones are never a pleasant experience. Fortunately, new technologies within the past few decades have enabled a procedure called lithotripsy, where larger stones are broken up in the urinary tract so they can be passed. Depending on the situation, this can be done with ultrasound pulses or with urology lasers directed via optical scopes. If you may be suffering from kidney stones, read on to learn about what this process can do for you.

When is Lithotripsy Needed?

While many kidney stones can be passed safely with little more than short periods of pain while urinating, larger stones present a risk of damage to the urinary tract. Sharper pain accompanied with nausea, bloody urine or an inability to urinate is a sign that you should seek medical help. A doctor will discuss options with you, depending on how long this has occurred and where the stones are located. If medicine is insufficient and the stone is within or near the kidney, lithotripsy is often the best choice.

The Process

Lithotripsy is performed in one of two methods, depending on the size and severity of the kidney stones:

  • Extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy (ESWL) locates stones with x-rays or ultrasound, then passes powerful acoustic pulses through the patient’s body to pulverize them. This is most effective for stones under 10 mm in diameter and requires no surgery.
  • Laser lithotripsy involves inserting a scope and optical fiber into the urinary tract and directly pulsing a laser beam into the stone to fragment it. This is effective for stones of 10-20 mm diameter. The process is minimally invasive, requiring no surgery beyond inserting the scope.

In either case, the procedure takes about an hour and can be performed on an outpatient basis; you will be administered anesthesia prior to the procedure, and full recovery often takes place within a week afterward. Depending on the circumstances, you may need medications or follow-up care, though the recovery is considerably shorter than more involved surgical treatments.

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