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Kidneys and Kidney Disease: Keeping Your Kidneys and Body Healthy

The kidneys residing in your body are extraordinary organs! 

Each is only about the size of your fist, yet they contain a million miniature filters called nephrons, processing up to 40 gallons of fluid a day. They’re crucial for good health.

What Exactly Do Kidneys Do?

kidneys and kidney disease

Kidneys filter your blood, removing excess water and waste which then becomes urine.

When blood passes through the kidney, these miniature filters strain out and hold onto the things your body requires - such as certain nutrients and much of the water. But extra water, excess nutrients and waste go to the bladder and get flushed away.

In addition to filtering, kidneys produce several hormones to help control blood pressure, activate vitamin D inside your body to keep bones strong and make red blood cells. Healthy kidneys play a significant role in maintaining excellent health.

When Kidneys Aren’t Healthy, What is the Scope of Kidney Disease?

Everyone loses some kidney function as they age. But when kidney function decreases due to underlying disease, it can take a serious toll. 

The good news is that people can survive with only one kidney if something happens to the second one, or if they choose to donate a kidney to someone in a health crisis. 

In 2016 alone, over 20,000 kidney transplants were performed in the United States. Some of those were even kidneys bequeathed to total strangers!

With disease, excess water and toxins remain in the blood. A dropoff in hormone production will produce other problems. Kidney disease also increases your risk of having heart and blood vessel disease.

About 1 in 10 adult Americans have some signs of kidney damage. Kidney disease usually affects both kidneys simultaneously, attacking the nephrons.

Sometimes there’s a genetic problem, a developing condition, an injury or poisoning, or the result of taking a particular medication. When damage takes place quickly, it’s identified as acute kidney injury. Development is rapid, usually in less than a few days.

Acute kidney failure could be fatal and intensive treatment is crucial - but it can be reversed. For those with good health, recovery to normal or near-normal kidney function is possible.

However, over a long period of time, unresolved kidney problems can result in chronic kidney disease.

What practices keep my kidneys healthy and prevent harm?

kidney pain

Acute kidney failure can sometimes be difficult to predict or prevent. But you can reduce the risks by being careful. Here are helpful suggestions:

Acute kidney failure can sometimes be difficult to predict or prevent. But you can reduce the risks by being careful. Here are helpful suggestions:

  • Always follow the instructions for over-the-counter pain medications. This includes aspirin, ibuprofen (that’s Motrin, Advil, etc.), acetaminophen (which includes Tylenol and other brands), and naproxen sodium (Aleve and others like it). 
  • Many people don’t realize that taking too much of these meds increases    danger of injuring your kidneys. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says this is especially true if you have pre-existing kidney disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure.
  • If any of those 3 conditions apply to you, make sure you follow doctor’s orders for treatment and management of your conditions. High blood pressure, in particular, is connected to kidney disease.
  • A healthy lifestyle has to be a priority. It won’t surprise you that doctors recommend:
    1. Get and stay active
    2. Eat a well-balanced heart-healthy diet
    3. Drink alcohol in moderation — or don’t drink at all

One registered dietitian who advises NIH says, “Most Americans eat more sodium and protein than the body needs. It’s your kidneys’ job to filter and get rid of the leftovers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” 

“Healthy kidneys can generally handle the workload. But if you have kidney damage, too much sodium and protein have a negative effect.” She continues. “We recommend eating less sodium and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”

What is Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)?

chronic kidney pain

Millions of American adults have chronic kidney disease, and millions of others are at risk of developing this condition.

Chronic kidney disease is a gradual loss of kidney function over time - where the nephrons slowly deteriorate for years or over decades. As with acute kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes are two main underlying causes. It’s interesting to note that high blood pressure causes CKD, and CKD causes high blood pressure.

With CKD, wastes accumulate in the blood. In addition to complications like high blood pressure, CKD can result in anemia and nerve damage, and contribute to weak bones or poor nutritional health. 

Early detection is crucial. Treatment can slow down or prevent chronic kidney disease from progressing to kidney failure.

Are certain people at higher risk for kidney disease?

Yes, it’s recognized that some are at higher risk than others. First, anyone with diabetes, a family history of kidney failure, or hypertension (high blood pressure) falls into the high-risk category.

But African-Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, and Senior citizens are also at increased risk. African-Americans have especially high risk - they tend to have high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure, the two leading causes of kidney disease.

If you have these risk factors, it’s important to be screened for kidney disease,” says Dr. Andrew Narva, a kidney specialist at NIH. “You can lose up to three-fourths of your kidney function and essentially have no symptoms.”

“That usually involves simple laboratory tests: a urine test to look for kidney damage, and a blood test to measure how well the kidneys are working.”

The urine test is looking for the protein albumin. Albumin normally isn’t found if your kidneys are healthy. Persistent proteinuria (protein in urine) indicates chronic kidney disease is present.

The blood test is examining something called glomerular filtration rate (GFR), which is an estimate of how well your kidneys are filtering.

A GFR that comes back below 60 is a sign of chronic kidney disease, and a GFR under 15 is labeled as kidney failure.

Remember - caught early, the progression of kidney disease can be slowed.

What are the symptoms (what do you feel) if you’re developing kidney disease?

kidney doctor

Unfortunately, you might not know it for quite some time. Kidney disease can be challenging to detect. 

That’s why it’s very important to stay vigilant and catch problems early. Those with diabetes or high blood pressure need to pay extra attention and have a doctor involved routinely.

Be on the alert for symptoms that could indicate CKD or a progression toward that condition. Get professional advice if you experience: 

  • more tiredness than usual
  • trouble concentrating, low energy
  • poor appetite
  • trouble sleeping
  • muscle cramping at night
  • swollen ankles or feet
  • puffiness around your eyes, especially in the morning
  • dry, itchy skin
  • need to urinate more often, especially at night

Without treatment, kidney disease typically gets worse. A GFR below 15 may cause tiredness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and itching. By that point, it’s very serious and a kidney transplant or dialysis may be necessary. 

Dialysis treatments filter wastes and water from the blood, which can allow those with kidney failure to continue with everyday activities. However, it’s a very challenging treatment that takes a toll on the patient and those who live with and help them.

Why do people with kidney disease suffer from shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is one of the most common symptoms associated with CKD. It’s not fully understood. Systemic inflammation may contribute to a variety of health issues - endothelial dysfunction, lung fibrosis, anemia, malnutrition, and muscle wasting.

Why does having kidney disease make your ankles swell?

Swelling can indicate problems with organs other than the kidneys, such as the heart or liver, and ankles that swell by evening may be related to salt and water retention. But kidney disease can cause foot and ankle swelling since fluid will build up in the body when kidneys aren’t filtering properly.

Why do you feel tired if you have kidney disease?

Sometimes there’s a connection between kidney problems and tiredness, low energy, and trouble concentrating. It’s due to the buildup of toxins in the blood from lack of impurities being filtered out. Kidney disease can also lead to anemia, which causes fatigue also.

Can a muscle cramp be linked to kidney disease? 

Yes, it can, but not always. One important function of the kidneys is to keep electrolytes in balance. Weakened kidney function throws off this balance and can lead to muscle cramps.

Why should blood in the urine always be investigated?

Seeing blood in your urine can be scary. Urine blood isn’t always serious, but you should get it checked out right away by a doctor. It could be a sign of certain types of cancer, which are easier to treat when found early.

Blood in your urine may be pink, but could also be red or dark brown. Pain that causes burning during urination, frequent urges to urinate, cloudy or foul urine, a fever, and pain in your side or lower back can be symptoms of urinary tract infections (UTI’s). 

UTI’s can lead to bladder or kidney infections. Intense pain in your sides, groin, or lower back might be from kidney stones instead.

Foamy urine is usually just a result of having an overly full bladder - a vigorous stream that stirs up the water. But it could be a sign of disease if it happens often, or gets worse over time.

Why is kidney pain sometimes mistaken for lower back pain?

kidney doctor

Kidney pain can result from urinary tract infections, kidney infections, and kidney stones. It’s sometimes accompanied by nausea and/or vomiting. But kidney pain can result from blunt trauma too.

Kidney pain and lower back pain are sometimes confused because of the kidneys’ location. Kidney pain tends to be deeper and higher, while muscle pain due to common back injury tends to be lower.

Treatment for kidney pain can often be treated with ibuprofen, ketorolac, or acetaminophen. Antibiotics are prescribed if the cause is a bacterial infection. When the cause is kidney stones, some people will pass a kidney stone spontaneously, but others may need surgery or other forms of treatment.

Pregnant women who suspect kidney pain should contact their doctor right away.

What are some other conditions that affect the kidneys?

A person’s kidneys could also be affected by:

  1. Cancer
  2. Cysts, including an inherited disease called polycystic kidney disease
  3. Kidney stones
  4. Infection: kidney, bladder, or urinary tract
  5. Glomerulonephritis, diseases causing inflammation to the kidneys
  6. Lupus or other auto-immune diseases
  7. Obstructions beside kidney stones, such as tumors or enlarged prostate gland
  8. Repeated urinary infections
  9. Blood clots in veins of the kidney area