Myth or Fact: Are Kidney Stones as Painful as Childbirth?

It has been said that passing a kidney stone is the closest a man will get to experiencing the pain of labor and childbirth. But is that true?

Sure, there’s heavy breathing, moaning and pain involved. But is having a kidney stone comparable to giving birth?

As it turns out, there’s no cut and dry answer. Kidney stones can range in size from a grain of sand to the size of a golf ball.

“Kidney stone pain can be very severe, and many patients report it as the worst they have ever experienced,” according to Mike Nguyen, MD, associate professor of clinical urology at Keck School of Medicine and urologist at the USC Institute of Urology of Keck Medicine of USC. “But how does this compare to the pain of childbirth? It turns out that the reported amount of pain in both situations is almost identical.”

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Dr. Nguyen points to a Scandinavian study from 1996, in which 70 first-time mothers rated their worst pain during labor as being on average between seven and eight, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst pain imaginable. Mothers with multiple childbirths, who often have a slightly easier experience, rated their worst pain as six to seven.

“When we recently surveyed 287 kidney stone patients in 2016, they rated their worst pain as being very similar to that of childbirth, with an average pain score of 7.9 out of 10,” Dr. Nguyen said.

The pain associated with kidney stones can vary greatly, as smaller stones often can get passed through the urine without you realizing you even had one, while larger ones can be excruciatingly painful. Add to that the fact that different people experience pain differently, and what may be intensely painful for someone else may not even be a blink on the pain radar for you.

Symptoms of kidney stones, according to the National Kidney Foundation, include:

  • Severe pain on one side of your lower back
  • Nagging stomach pain
  • Blood in the urine
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever and chills
  • Urine that smells bad or looks cloudy

What makes kidney stones so painful is that they block the flow of urine from the kidney. When urine gets backed up, it can create waves of pain and cramping in a similar effect to labor contractions.

That brings us to a bigger myth about kidney stones: that only older men get them. It’s true that men are more likely to have kidney stones, as men have about a 10 percent chance of having them in their lifetime, while a woman’s risk is closer to 5 percent. But a recent study in Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found that the risk of kidney stones has increased by 16 percent from 1997 to 2012. In particular the risk increased for women, children and African Americans, and for people aged 25 and under who get kidney stones, women actually outnumber men.

If you’re not feeling well or are experiencing severe pain of any kind, reach out to your primary care physician for help.

If you are local to Southern California and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit to schedule an appointment.

By: Anne Fritz