Shock wave lithotripsy (SWL) has proven to be a highly effective treatment for the removal of kidney stones. Shock waves (SWs) can be used to break most stone types, and because lithotripsy is the only noninvasive treatment for urinary stones, SWL is particularly attractive. On the downside SWL can cause vascular trauma to the kidney and surrounding organs. This acute SW damage can be severe, can lead to scarring with a permanent loss of functional renal volume, and has been linked to potentially serious long-term adverse effects. A recent retrospective study linking lithotripsy to the development of diabetes mellitus has further focused attention on the possibility that SWL may lead to life-altering chronic effects. Thus, it appears that what was once considered to be an entirely safe means to eliminate renal stones can elicit potentially severe unintended consequences. The purpose of this review is to put these findings in perspective. The goal is to explain the factors that influence the severity of SWL injury, update current understanding of the long-term consequences of SW damage, describe the physical mechanisms thought to cause SWL injury, and introduce treatment protocols to improve stone breakage and reduce tissue damage.