Health & Fitness | August 30, 2021 12:12 pm

Are Kidney Stones Really More Painful Than Childbirth?

Kidney stones are often compared to childbirth in terms of pain level, but is it actually worse?

Chalkboard sign on sidewalk reads "This too shall pass. It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass." We take a look at whether kidney stones are more painful than childbirth.
What's worse, kidney stones or children?
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

There are many extraordinarily painful things that can befall the human body, but in a new YouTube video, Justin Cottle of the Institute of Human Anatomy breaks down one source of pain widely regarded as one of the absolute worst — and no, it’s not heartbreak or stepping on a Lego. It’s kidney stones.

“Kidney stones are one of the most painful things that a human being can possibly experience,” says Cottle, who goes on to recount an incident in which one of his students, a mother of six children, claimed she would rather “have all six of them, all natural, back-to-back, than ever have a kidney stone again.”

Now, the notion of anything being more painful than natural childbirth may prompt some eye-rolling, particularly from women who actually have pushed a living creature out of their vagina without the ameliorating balm of modern medicine. As a woman who has passed neither a kidney stone nor a human child, however, I have absolutely zero grounds on which to weigh in on this debate, and won’t question the word of a woman who claims to have experienced both sources of intense physical pain.

Regardless, while preferring back-to-back natural labor over passing a kidney stone may sound dramatic, or at least pretty jarring, Cottle says it’s not uncommon for the pain of passing kidney stones to be compared to that of childbirth, or to be considered worse. “A lot of people do compare kidney stones with childbirth,” says Cottle. That said, while that pain may not be exaggerated, it is subjective.

“The thing you have to understand is that pain is actually very subjective, meaning that if I was somehow able to give this exact same kidney stone to two different people, and they had the exact same experience, they’re still going to process that pain differently. And that doesn’t make one more ‘real’ than the other,” Cottle explains.

“I can’t tell you how painful kidney stones are, because there’s a lot of different factors that go into it,” he continues. “It’s the person, but it’s also their overall health, it’s the size and shape of the kidney stone, it’s the hardness of the kidney stone.”

So what is it exactly about kidney stones that makes them childbirth-level painful? For one thing, they’re often sharp and jagged, “scratching and scraping” through a tube that is far too small. Kidney stones can also get stuck in the urinary tract, blocking urine flow and creating pressure inside the kidney.

Whether or not passing kidney stones is truly as painful as childbirth remains subjective. But as Cottle puts it, “Either way, you do not want to have these things,” which I assume is sound wisdom when it comes to both kidney stones and children.