Calcium Supplements or Osteoporosis

July 29, 2014 in Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

I was watching a movie a couple of days ago, and the lead female actor said something about kidney stones causing pain worse that childbirth. It sent me back about three decades when I experienced kidney stones. After the ordeal, I told my friends that I would rather have another baby natural childbirth than go through the kidney stone torment again. I had given birth to three children in the 1970s without any benefit of pain control assistance, so I felt qualified to give my opinion.

The husband of one of my friend’s had suffered from kidney stones and had kept one of them, I guess as a kind of souvenir, after it passed through. In my memory, it was the size of a pea. A kidney stone can be anywhere from the size of a sugar crystal to the size of a ping pong ball, but you usually don’t notice them unless they cause a blockage or if they break loose and end up in the ureters, the narrow ducts leading to the bladder. My friend was quite comical when comparing her husband’s pain from a pea-sized stone to her pain in birthing the head of her child. I was almost surprised to side with her husband in his evaluation of the kidney stone pain.

Before we leave the pain issue, I should tell you that the pain can be in the belly, the groin or the back. I remember the nurse at the emergency room asking me where the pain was. I was seriously not able to say exactly where it was, as it seemed to cause a spasm of my entire abdomen and back – it came in waves like childbirth. After about five hours of pain and struggles, amplified by a collapsed vein, to get an iodine-containing contrast medium x-ray test, the stones passed. Unfortunately, not before vomiting and thinking I was dying.

With kidney stones there are really not many symptoms besides severe pain in the back (kidney), belly, or groin; blood in the urine, nausea and vomiting and frequent or painful urination. These same symptoms are also associated with many other conditions – some are emergencies, so don’t hang around home, if it happens to you.

Certainly, follow up with an appointment with an urologist. A couple of important pieces of information were learned at my follow-up. First, I learned that taking a slug of Tums (calcium carbonate) as recommended by my professor to avoid osteoporosis, was not a good idea for me. Some of us are “stone formers.” And second, if I would follow my long-term habit of not drinking much liquid, I would be at increased risk of going through the painful process again. Now they even have medication that can help prevent new stones from forming; but I’m surely glad that I have not had any problems with kidney stones for about thirty years.

I should mention here that kidney stones can be more than a painful nuisance.  When I learned during my public health studies, that I have very small bones, I called my sister to share with her what I learned. She began calcium supplementing at almost the same time as I did. She ended up in the intensive care unit with acute pyelonephritis, near death at one point. Armed with a replication of dire results, we both stopped supplementing with calcium.

There are several choices of ways to get rid of kidney stones: drinking water for little stones, shock waves to break stones up, or removing them surgically.

About 80% of kidney stones are calcium-based; and others are made of uric acid, struvite, or cystine.  My sister’s and my stones were both the common calcium type. So knowing what the stones are made of helps the doctor advise the patient how to prevent them in the future. Beware of common calcium supplements if you form calcium stones. Also, remember that dehydration, even mild dehydration can increase the risk of kidney stones.

Why write this story so many years later? I have been devoted to not getting kidney stones again; so I’ve never supplemented with calcium. This has long been a problem for me; as I am genetically at high risk of osteoporosis. I know that I’m not alone in this problem; so I decided to share what I’ve learned over the past year.

It’s not news to me and probably not to you, that the human body is supremely complex. When we try to work around health problems with our human understanding, it is often challenging. When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis a year or so ago, I was told that the problem with bone health was just ratcheted up. OK, the doctor did not use that terminology; but he did say that I needed to supplement with calcium and I needed to get serious with the Fosamax, if I didn’t want to be prematurely crippled with osteoporosis.

So I took the chance and set aside my long-term habit of avoiding calcium supplements.  I started taking calcium citrate with breakfast (it has a record of a decreased risk of forming stones) and one chewable chocolaty calcium carbonate when finishing dinner. The key for reducing risk seems to be taking calcium supplements with a meal. So far, no stones! Yippee!!!

My first line of defense was to turn to the foods containing the highest absorbable form of the needed nutrient. My favorite way of getting extra calcium is using bone-containing canned wild salmon; but it doesn’t seem practical or appetizing to have salmon every day. Although I dragged my feet for decades, I decided that sometimes we need to use supplements to decrease the risk of serious health problems. It’s too difficult to get enough calcium in my diet without taking the supplements. So I resigned myself to do the best that I can. My hope is that you can avoid both kidney stones and osteoporosis, too. So maybe just resign yourself to do the best that you can. Find those ways of getting additional calcium for osteoporosis, and other calcium needs, while minimizing the risk of kidney stones.