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Most of us, when we think about space exploration, generally don’t put the words kidney stones and astronauts in the same sentence. However, it has been found over the years that astronauts are more prone to dealing with kidney stones within 2 years after having travelled to space. The thought is that this occurs as a result of the weightlessness during the trip which cause bone demineralization.
For anyone who has experienced kidney stones, it is well known that saying they are uncomfortable is serious understatement! (For those unfamiliar with kidney stones, the stones become typically enter the urinary tract, but do not pass easily, thus causing an obstruction of urine flow, and can even result in the swelling of the kidney and cramps.) Adding insult to injury, once a person deals with kidney stones, they are at increased risk of future ones and related problems. Consequently, much medical research and study has been done to determine ways to make the passing of them, and procedures for eliminating them as tolerable as possible.
Because of the higher risk of kidney stones to astronauts, NASA along with several other entities, have provided funding to the University of Washington and UW Medicine to collaborate with a select few other research facilities to develop technology that will allow ultrasound to be used to make kidney stones more bearable.
Thanks to advancements made in ultrasound it is now possible to better detect kidney stones – often much sooner than in times past. But beyond that, tests are now being done to determine if kidney stones can be repositioned so as to not be a problem. Those involved with the testing believe that by using ultrasound, they will be able to reposition the kidney stones back into the patient’s kidneys thus allowing doctors/patients to deal with the kidney stones on their own terms/schedule. Another advantage of this procedure is that by using ultrasound to reposition kidney stones, is that patients will be in less pain and be able to avoid strong pain relievers.
As to space exploration, should the use of ultrasound be as effective as it believed to be, then the procedure will actually be able to be performed by an on-board medical responder safely and effectively during a space mission. This could actually save a life and allow the astronaut to complete mission responsibilities without need of the space shuttle having to return home. Better yet, being able to treat the astronauts during a mission would mean more time in space for exploring.
Currently, the space ultrasound being used for kidney stones is about the size of a podium and has a built-in imaging screen and hand operated device that is used in making assessments.
So, ultrasounds in space? Why not! After all, as Neil Armstrong said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Using ultrasounds to make space exploration easier is definitely a step in the right direction.