What is shockwave lithotripsy?

Shockwave lithotripsy (SWL) is a noninvasive procedure for breaking up kidney stones with high-energy shock waves. SWL is the least invasive and least risky approach to stone treatment.

The term “lithotripsy” combines the Greek words “litho” (stone) and “tripsis” (friction or rubbing). The goal of SWL is to break the stones into tiny fragments that can easily pass through the urinary tract along with urine. Shock wave lithotripsy is the most common type of treatment for removing kidney stones.

When is shockwave lithotripsy needed?

Usually, stones that form in the kidneys are small enough to pass through the urinary tract and are excreted (passed) along with urine. The main reasons for undergoing the SWL procedure to treat kidney stones are:

  • The stones are too large to pass on their own (greater than 5 millimeters in diameter).
  • The stones block the flow of urine.
  • The stones cause bleeding or a kidney infection.
  • Pain relievers are not effective in treating symptoms.

When can kidney stones be treated with shockwave lithotripsy?

Whether kidney stones can be successfully treated with SWL depends on the size of the stones and their number, position, and type. The hardness and depth of the stone is measured on a CT scan before surgery to predict the likelihood of success.

The procedure produces the best results when the kidney stones are no larger than 1.5 centimeters in diameter. The stones must be visible with an X-ray monitor during the treatment. SWL might not be suitable for patients who are obese or on blood thinners.

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