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Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy (ESWL) for Kidney Stones

Treatment Overview

Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) uses shock waves to break a kidney stone into small pieces that can more easily travel through the urinary tract and pass from the body.

See a picture of ESWL.

  • You lie on a water-filled cushion, and the surgeon uses X-rays or ultrasound tests to precisely locate the stone. High-energy sound waves pass through your body without injuring it and break the stone into small pieces. These small pieces move through the urinary tract and out of the body more easily than a large stone.
  • The process takes about an hour.
  • You may receive sedatives or local anesthesia.
  • Your surgeon may use a stent if you have a large stone. A stent is a small, short tube of flexible plastic mesh that holds the ureter open. This helps the small stone pieces to pass without blocking the ureter.

What To Expect After Treatment

ESWL is usually an outpatient procedure. You go home after the treatment and do not have to spend a night in the hospital.

After ESWL, stone fragments usually pass in the urine for a few days and cause mild pain. If you have a larger stone, you may need more ESWL or other treatments.

Why It Is Done

ESWL may be used on a person who has a kidney stone that is causing pain or blocking the urine flow. Stones that are between 4 mm (0.16 in.) and 2 cm (0.8 in.) in diameter are most likely to be treated with ESWL.

ESWL may work best for kidney stones in the kidney or in the part of the ureter close to the kidney. Your surgeon may try to push the stone back into the kidney with a small instrument (ureteroscope) and then use ESWL.

ESWL is usually not used if you:

  • Are pregnant. The sound waves and X-rays may be harmful to the fetus.
  • Have a bleeding disorder.
  • Have a kidney infection, urinary tract infection, or kidney cancer.
  • Have kidneys with abnormal structure or function.
Click here to view a Decision Point.Kidney Stones: Should I Have Lithotripsy to Break Up the Stone?

How Well It Works

ESWL works for most people who have small kidney stones—either in the kidney or in the ureter.

Risks

Complications of ESWL include:

  • Pain caused by the passage of stone fragments.
  • Blocked urine flow as a result of stone fragments becoming stuck in the urinary tract. The fragments may then need to be removed with a ureteroscope.
  • Urinary tract infection.
  • Bleeding around the outside of the kidney.

What To Think About

ESWL does not replace the need for the preventive treatment of kidney stones, such as drinking enough fluids so that you don't get dehydrated.

ESWL does not successfully treat cystine kidney stones. These stones do not break up easily.

ESWL is a safe procedure and may be used on children and on individuals with only one working kidney. ESWL should not be used if you have a pacemaker unless a cardiologist has determined it is safe.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF)special treatment information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Tushar J. Vachharajani, MD, FASN, FACP - Nephrology
Current as of May 2, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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