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What is a Kidney Stone Operation?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The primary surgical kidney stone operation is called nephrolithotomy. In this procedure, doctors open up the patient’s kidney and remove the stones manually. There are some severe downsides to this operation, including the potential to permanently damage the kidneys. It is primarily used only for removing stones that are too large to remove with other methods. Some patients also have additional complicating factors that force doctors to consider surgery, such as stones that are located in particularly awkward locations within the kidney.

In most cases, kidney stones are very small, which means that they typically pass while people are urinating. Sometimes there is a lot of discomfort in the process, but it can often happen without any help from doctors. When stones are larger than typical, it is usually possible to remove them with less invasive procedures.

There are some serious risks for people when they have to undergo a kidney stone operation. According to experts, the damage that’s done to the kidney when it’s opened is generally somewhat permanent. The kidney heals afterward, but it will normally never work as well as it did previously. For this reason, it can be especially dangerous to perform a kidney stone operation on the same kidney more than twice, and doctors usually worry that patients may require further operations on the kidney for some other problem later in life.

There was a time when performing a kidney stone operation was a relatively common occurrence. In fact, for a long time, doctors didn’t have any other reliable methods of removing larger kidney stones. Eventually, some better methods where developed which allowed doctors to avoid some of the risks of surgically opening the kidneys, and kidney stone surgery became exceedingly rare. In fact, some estimates suggest that only about 1 or 2 percent of patients require surgery.

Some of the more common alternative approaches for dealing with kidney stones include a procedure called lithrotripsy and methods that rely on snaking tubes up into the kidney. Lithrotripsy uses sound waves to destroy larger stones so that they become fragmented enough to pass without difficulty. The two tube-based methods have different ways of dealing with the stones once the kidney is reached. One uses lasers to destroy the stones, while the other attempts to suction them out. Sometimes these methods don’t work on very large stones or stones that are too solid to break up easily.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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