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Recurrent Nephrolithiasis in Adults: Comparative Effectiveness of Preventive Medical Strategies

Clinician Summary – Aug. 8, 2013

Recurrent Nephrolithiasis in Adults: Comparative Effectiveness of Preventive Medical Strategies


Table of Contents

Research Focus for Clinicians

In response to a request from the public, the Minnesota Evidence-based Practice Center, funded by AHRQ, performed a systematic review of the literature to examine the comparative effectiveness and adverse effects of interventions to prevent kidney stone recurrence in adults aged 18 years or older. Biochemical measurements for predicting the risk of stone recurrence after treatment were also evaluated. Studies that addressed acute pain management and treatment to promote expulsion of ureteral stones were excluded. This review focused on recurrent calcium stones in patients with or without residual stones or stone fragments. Many of the studies assessed in this review included patients with idiopathic calcium stones, although not all studies specified the etiology of kidney stones in the included population. For evaluating the relative effectiveness of interventions for preventing stone recurrence, only randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were included. For assessing adverse effects of the interventions, in addition to RCTs, prospective observational studies of at least 100 participants being treated for secondary prevention of kidney stones were included. A search of the clinical study literature published from 1948 through 2011 using predetermined inclusion and exclusion criteria yielded 28 RCTs that were included in the systematic review. The full report, listing all studies, can be accessed on the right side of this Web page. This summary, based on the full report of research evidence, is provided to inform discussions of options with patients and to assist in decisionmaking along with consideration of a patient’s values and preferences. However, reviews of evidence should not be construed to represent clinical recommendations or guidelines.


Eighty percent of adults with kidney stones have calcium-based stones, with uric acid and struvite stones representing much of the remainder. Risk of stone formation may represent an interaction of both genetic and environmental factors. Data from large cohort studies suggest an association between the increased risk of stone formation and dietary factors such as low fluid intake, low calcium intake, high sodium intake, high animal protein intake, and high fructose intake. The risk of kidney stones may also be increased by medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, primary hyperparathyroidism, and gout. Stones may be asymptomatic or may present with abdominal and flank pain, nausea and vomiting, urinary tract obstruction, and infection. Stone recurrence increases the risk of developing chronic kidney disease. Recurrence can be diagnosed by radiographic studies and/or by symptomatic stone recurrence. The 5-year recurrence rate in the absence of specific treatment is 35 to 50 percent.

Clinical uncertainty exists about the comparative effectiveness and adverse effects of pharmacological and dietary (e.g., increased fluids and adequate calcium) preventive treatments. Current guidelines recommend pretreatment biochemical analysis of blood and urine, but it is not clear if using the results of these analyses to tailor treatment is associated with better outcomes than empiric therapy. The authors of this systematic review examined the evidence around these uncertainties.


The published evidence regarding the effectiveness of dietary interventions to reduce the risk of calcium stone recurrence is limited. There is low-strength evidence that fluid intake to maintain urine excretion of at least 2 L per day may provide a clinically significant reduction in risk of stone recurrence. Similarly, low levels of evidence from a single study support abstaining from soft drinks or eliminating soft drinks containing only phosphoric acid but not citric acid in men who frequently consume such drinks. A normal-calcium (1,200 mg/day), low-sodium, low-animal protein diet may reduce the risk for stone recurrence, but the independent effects of increasing dietary calcium or reducing dietary sodium or animal protein have not been determined. Diets with high fiber or reduced animal protein as solitary interventions may not help prevent stone recurrence. The effectiveness of other dietary interventions is not clear.

When added to increased fluid intake, thiazide diuretics, citrate, and allopurinol pharmacotherapy each significantly decreased the risk of recurrent calcium kidney stones more than increased fluid intake alone. Allopurinol treatment reduced the rate of stone recurrence for patients with elevated blood or urine levels of uric acid. Thiazides or citrates may be preferred initial therapy over allopurinol in patients with calcium stones and no hyperuricosuria or hyperuricemia. Patients receiving pharmacological interventions may experience adverse effects that lead to withdrawal from treatment.

Other than allopurinol treatment in patients with high levels of blood or urine uric acid, clinical studies have not clearly established the general utility of baseline blood and 24-hour urine biochemical measures. No RCTs reported and prospectively compared subsequent stone recurrence outcomes between treatments stratified by followup biochemistry levels or by changes in these measures from pretreatment baseline values.

Regarding applicability, nearly all trials were limited to patients with a history of calcium stones and were conducted primarily in young to middle-aged men. Many trials excluded participants with biochemical abnormalities, and nearly all excluded individuals with specific conditions that could predispose them to stone formation. Applicability is also limited by the absence of reported data on participant characteristics including race, body morphometry, and comorbid conditions that increase the risk for kidney stones or affect treatment outcomes.

Clinical Bottom Line

Dietary Interventions

  • A limited body of evidence suggests that dietary interventions may reduce the risk of stone recurrence (see Table 1). evidence low
  • Neither high-fiber nor reduced-animal protein diets as isolated interventions had a statistically significant effect on stone recurrence.evidence low
Adverse Effects

Pharmacological Interventions


Trials were designed to evaluate the effects of pharmacological agents given in addition to standard dietary recommendations (e.g., increase fluids, limit oxalate-containing foods, limit sodium).

  • Thiazide diuretics, citrate, and allopurinol each reduce the risk of calcium stone recurrence (composite endpoint*).evidence medium
    • Thiazide diuretics: ARR = 29 percent, NNT = 3 (RR = 0.53 [95% CI 0.41 to 0.68])
      • Hydrochlorothiazide, chlorthalidone, and indapamide each reduce the risk of recurrent stones, but no trial directly compared thiazide agents to each other.
      • No trial directly compared different dosages of pharmacological agents, and no trial assessed the lower thiazide doses often used to treat hypertension (12.5 to 25 mg per day for hydrochlorothiazide and < 25 mg per day for chlorthalidone).
    • Citrate: ARR = 41 percent, NNT = 3 (RR = 0.25 [95% CI, 0.14 to 0.44])
    • Allopurinol (in patients with elevated blood or urine uric acid): ARR = 22 percent, NNT = 5 (RR = 0.59 [95% CI, 0.42 to 0.84])
  • There is no additional benefit (composite endpoint*) from adding citrate to thiazide in patients with calcium stones, 35 percent of whom had hypercalciuria and 15 percent of whom had hypocitraturia.evidence low
  • Treatment with magnesium did not reduce the risk (composite endpoint*) of stone recurrence when compared with placebo. No statistically significant difference in the risk of recurrence was observed.evidence low
  • The evidence about acetohydroxamic acid treatment to prevent stone recurrence (radiographic) in patients with chronic urinary tract infections and struvite stones is insufficient to permit conclusions (evidence insufficient) which does not exclude that the drug does not work. Evidence from three RCTs suggests that there is reduction in stone growth with acetohydroxamic acid treatment.
Adverse Effects
  • When compared with participants given placebo or control treatments, patients assigned to thiazide, citrate, or acetohydroxamic acid were more likely to withdraw from trials and to withdraw due to adverse events.
  • Participants treated with allopurinol were not more likely than control group participants to withdraw from trials overall or to withdraw due to adverse events.
  • Patients given high-dose magnesium were more likely to withdraw due to adverse events (all due to diarrhea) when compared with placebo groups.
  • Specific adverse events were poorly reported. U.S. Food and Drug Administration labels should be consulted when using these agents.

* Composite endpoint refers to stones detected by either symptoms or scheduled radiographs.
ARR = absolute risk reduction; NNT = number needed to treat; RCT = randomized controlled trial; RR = relative risk; 95% CI = 95 percent confidence interval

Strength of Evidence Scale

High: evidence high There are consistent results from good-quality studies. Further research is very unlikely to change the conclusions.

Moderate: evidence medium Findings are supported, but further research could change the conclusions.

Low: evidence low There are very few studies, or existing studies are flawed.

Insufficient:evidence insufficient Research is either unavailable or does not permit estimation of a treatment effect.

Baseline and Followup Blood and Urine Biochemical Evaluations To Predict Stone Recurrence*

Baseline Biochemical Evaluations
Followup Biochemical Evaluations

* The strength of evidence in support of these conclusions was not rated.
** Composite endpoint refers to stones detected by either symptoms or scheduled radiographs.
RCT = randomized controlled trial; RR = relative risk; 95% CI = 95-percent confidence interval

Table 1. Effects of Dietary Interventions on Risk of Urinary Stone Recurrence
Intervention Comparator Mode of Detection ARR NNT RR (95% CI) Strength of Evidence
* Composite endpoint refers to stones detected by either symptoms or scheduled radiographs.
The recommended level of dietary calcium intake in this study was 1,200 mg per day.
** Changes in risk according to a specific metabolic abnormality and specific dietary recommendations were not reported.
ARR = absolute risk reduction: the difference in risk between the control group and the treatment group; NNT = number needed to treat: the number of patients to be treated to find the benefit in one patient more than in the control group; RR = relative risk; 95% CI = 95-percent confidence interval
Increasing fluids to maintain urine output > 2 L per day (for individuals with a single previous calcium stone episode) No increase in fluids Composite* 15% 7 0.45 (0.24 to 0.84) evidence low
Eliminating soft drinks (based on a single study in men) No advice to reduce intake of soft drinks Symptomatic 7% 14 0.83 (0.71 to 0.98) evidence low
Eliminating soft drinks acidified solely with phosphoric acid but not citric acid: a subgroup analysis of participants who frequently consumed such soft drinks 16% 6 0.65 (0.49 to 0.87) evidence low
Low-animal protein, low-sodium, decreased- oxalate, increased-water, and normal-calcium diet Low calcium, decreased oxalate, and increased water intake Composite 18% 6 0.52 (0.29 to 0.95) evidence low
Low-animal protein, high-fiber, increased-bran, low-purine, adequate-calcium, and increased-fluid diet Adequate calcium and increased fluid Composite -20% 5 5.88 (1.39 to 24.92) evidence low
Tailored diet based on a metabolic evaluation** Empirical dietary recommendations Composite 13% 8 0.32 (0.14 to 0.74) evidence low

Gaps in Knowledge

A review of RCTs to assess the benefits and of RCTs and observational studies to assess the adverse effects revealed a number of gaps in knowledge as reflected in these particular types of studies.

What To Discuss With Your Patients

  • That kidney stones have a high chance of recurring if not managed properly
  • The importance of maintaining daily fluid intake to achieve urine output of > 2 L per day
  • The benefits and adverse effects of medicines for preventing kidney stone recurrence
  • Dietary changes that may be beneficial in reducing the risk of kidney stones (i.e., eliminating soft drinks acidified solely with phosphoric acid, increasing calciumrich foods to achieve the recommended daily intake, and limiting oxalate-containing foods)

Resource for Patients

Lowering the Chance of Getting Another Calcium Kidney Stone, A Review of the Research for Adults is a free companion to this clinician research summary. It can help patients talk with their health care professionals about the many options for treatment. It provides information about:
  • The causes of kidney stones and the risk of recurrence
  • The role of dietary therapies in preventing kidney stones
  • The benefits and adverse effects of medicines that can be added to dietary therapies


The information in this summary is based on Recurrent Nephrolithiasis in Adults: Comparative Effectiveness of Preventive Medical Strategies, Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 61, prepared by the Minnesota Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-02-0009 for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, July 2012. This summary was prepared by the John M. Eisenberg Center for Clinical Decisions and Communications Science at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX. It was written by Geetha Achanta, Ph.D., Richard E. Link, M.D., Ph.D., and Michael Fordis, M.D.

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