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Supplements: The Common Cure for Urinary Stones?
A Painful Problem
According to an August 2006 article in the Journal of Urology, more than $1.5 billion is spent annually in the United States on plant supplements to prevent and relieve the symptoms of urinary stones. It's no surprise. Urinary stones, commonly called kidney stones, are perhaps the most painful urologic condition--some have likened the discomfort to childbirth.
It is estimated that the problems caused by urinary stones are responsible for nearly three million physician office visits, and more than 500,000 emergency room encounters each year. In industrialized countries, about 10% to 12% of the population experiences problems with urinary stones. Those most susceptible are in the age range of 20 to 40 years, however stones can occur at any age.
Simply put, urinary stones represent a major health problem, and one that has plagued humans for millennia. From a preventive standpoint, oral citrate has been shown to be highly effective, although it is not well tolerated by all patients and some, even while on the drug, continue to develop stones. Once stones have developed, there are effective treatments that range from oral medications to major surgery to various outpatient procedures. In one procedure, a lighted scope is inserted into the urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the body, to locate the stone in the urinary tract, snare it with a special device, and remove it from the body. Another technique uses shock wave lithotripsy to bombard the stone with sound waves, breaking it into smaller pieces that can be passed in the urine.
There are, of course, potential side effects and risks associated with oral medications and the other treatment options described above, which is part of the reason for a renewed interest in phytotherapy--the use of plant with medicinal properties to prevent and treat urinary stones. Health and nutrition stores everywhere, and even the vitamin and supplement aisle of the local grocery store, carry various supplements with labeling that describe product benefits for maintaining a healthy urinary tract. Before rushing to the store, read on and make sure that you talk with your doctor before adding any supplement to your diet.
Historically, many cultures around the world have used plant or herbal treatments as remedies for urinary stones - some that date to ancient Egypt. Today, on nearly every continent local cultures still use these therapies -- some as a complement to modern medical treatments. In many cases, however, because of local traditions and customs and a lack of access to modern methods, these treatments represent the first choice or only option.
How do Supplements Work?
In many cases, the exact nature of the therapeutic action is unknown. Before we consider how they work, it is helpful to understand the process of stone formation and their composition. Stones usually form for one of three reasons. In one, stones form from crystals occurring in the urine. These crystals, which usually consist of calcium and oxalate (salt) or phosphate, clump together, much like the ice crystals that form snowflakes. Although urine usually contains chemicals that prevent or limit stone formation, in some individuals these chemicals do not function properly. A second cause of stone formation is genetics: some individuals have an inherited tendency toward stone formation. A third cause is an infection. When stones occur, they may remain small enough to be passed in the urine. Larger stones that cannot be passed must be treated using other methods.
One thing that most plant or herbal treatments have in common is a diuretic effect: they increase urine output. In some cases, the remedies appear to decrease the presence of calcium and oxalate in the urine, or increase magnesium or citrate, which raise the acidity levels and limit stone formation. Certain fruit juices, such as cranberry juice, have been shown to raise the presence of citrate, while decreasing the levels of oxalate and calcium.
Plant Supplements: Talking with Your Doctor
Although studies of plant and herbal treatments and their role in preventing or treating stones certainly show some positive effects, we encourage you to talk with your doctor before starting any supplement. At Valley Urological Associates, we take a comprehensive approach to patient care. Although we may be treating a urinary tract problem or condition, each patient's good health depends on a complicated relationship among many different organs and systems within the body. What happens in one organ or system affects everything else, which is why our first step with every new patient is to gather a complete medical history, and update it frequently.
Our patients can be assured that we evaluate each proven technology, medication and other treatments and therapies, and with each patient, we weigh the risks and benefits of each in addressing their unique health care needs.