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The pain that sent Simone Biles to the ER: What to know about kidney stones

The star gymnast endured even though she couldn't take pain medication. Each year, half a million people go to the ER for kidney stone problems.
Simone Biles
Simone Biles poses with a medal after at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Doha, Qatar, on November 3, 2018.Noushad Thekkayil / EPA
/ Source: TODAY

Simone Biles became the most decorated female gymnast ever over the weekend and she did it while in pain from a kidney stone.

The discomfort in her lower back was “manageable” Biles, 21, said in an interview with the Olympic Channel. But she admitted she worried at one point she wouldn’t be able to compete at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Doha, Qatar, which wrapped up Saturday. The stone was too big to pass, so Biles planned to be evaluated by doctors when she returned home to the U.S.

The situation took the gymnast and her team by surprise when she suddenly had to seek medical help 24 hours before the competition began.

“We had to go to the ER because I’ve been having stomach pains on my right side for two days. We started to think it was my appendix so we wanted to go as a precaution, and then we got test done just to see what it was and then they found a kidney stone,” Biles said in an interview with USA Gymnastics.

“The adrenaline definitely helps because even when I’m walking or doing some stretches, I’m in a bit of pain.”

Biles couldn't take prescription pain medication because of doping regulations, the Associated Press reported, but she still shined.

She won four gold medals, a silver and a bronze in Doha, matching retired Russian Svetlana Khokrina‘s record 20 career medals, NBC Sports reported. Biles has the tiebreaker with a record 14 gold medals.

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What are the symptoms of kidney stones?

Kidney stones — which form when substances in the urine become concentrated and harden — can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a pearl, according to the National Institutes of Health. There have even been cases of kidney stones the size of golf balls.

Most kidney stones pass out of the body on their own, but some may get stuck in the urinary tract and block the flow of urine, causing severe pain.

Biles is one of the more than half a million people who go to an emergency room for kidney stone problems each year, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

The symptoms include:

  • severe pain on either side of the lower back
  • vague pain or stomach ache that doesn't go away
  • blood in the urine
  • nausea or vomiting
  • fever and chills
  • urine that smells bad or looks cloudy

Who gets kidney stones?

Kidney stones are fairly common: The lifetime risk is about 19 percent for men and 9 percent for women, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Children can get them, too. People who form one stone have about a 50 percent risk for developing another in the next five to seven years, it noted.

Drinking too little water, exercising too much or too little, obesity, weight loss surgery or eating food with too much salt or sugar can be factors in stones forming.

How are kidney stones treated?

If the body can’t pass a stone on its own, doctors can use shock waves to break it into tiny pieces.

Other options include a ureteroscopy, a procedure that lets doctors treat stones with an endoscope, and — more rarely — surgery that involves entering the kidney through an incision in the back.

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