Kidneys are essential to your overall health. These bean-shaped, fist-sized organs that sit just below your ribcage work hard around-the-clock to keep your body healthy.
“Your kidneys filter out waste and excess fluids from your blood, and help to maintain normal levels of electrolytes like sodium and potassium,” said Tyler Andrea, DO, a nephrologist with Samaritan Kidney Specialists – Corvallis. “They also produce important hormones that help keep your blood pressure under control and signals the body to make red blood cells.”
There are a variety of kidney diseases that cause damage to your kidneys and leave them unable to function properly.
Chronic Kidney Disease
With chronic kidney disease (CKD), the kidneys are not able to filter the blood normally.
“CKD is the most common kidney-related illness in the United States and is generally caused by other chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension,” said Dr. Andrea. “Another common cause is the heavy use of over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or herbal and weight loss supplements.”
Often people with CKD don’t experience symptoms until the very late stages or when the kidneys are already failing. In fact, only 10 percent of people know that they have it.
While you cannot reverse CKD, lifestyle changes and medications to control blood pressure and heart disease can help to manage the disease.
“If kidney health deteriorates to the point that the kidneys can no longer function properly, dialysis, which is a medical treatment that filters extra fluid and waste out of the blood, will be needed,” said Dr. Andrea.
The only definitive cure for CKD is a kidney transplant, which can often have wait times of 3 to 5 years for kidney donation and requires lifelong medications to prevent rejection.
Acute Kidney Injury
Previously called acute renal failure, acute kidney injury often develops quickly, usually within a couple days, and is where your kidneys are no longer able to remove waste from your blood.
It is most common in older people who are critically ill or hospitalized and can be caused by infection or sepsis, dehydration, congestive heart failure, major surgery, medications, or a urinary obstruction.
“Acute kidney injury may be reversible depending on your overall health and the cause, but it may require intensive medical interventions,” said Dr. Andrea. “Without treatment, severe cases can be fatal. Repeated episodes of acute kidney injury will also lead to progression or worsening of CKD.”
Treatment of acute kidney injury is typically focused on managing the underlying medical issue or condition that caused the injury. In some cases, this may be treated with fluids, medication, or stopping the medicine that injured the kidneys in the first place. Other cases may require dialysis.
“It is difficult to immediately determine if dialysis will be temporary or lifelong, but certain types of diseases and having a history of CKD does increase the likelihood of long-term dialysis,” said Dr. Andrea.
Kidney stones can be as large as a golf ball or as small as a grain of sand. They typically occur when you have an elevated level of substances in your urine such as calcium. Crystals made up of these substances then form inside your kidneys and turn into a kidney stone. You can have more than one stone in your kidney at a time.
“Kidney stones usually leave the body through urination if they are small. Larger kidney stones, however, can get stuck in the urinary tract and block urine from getting through,” said Dr. Andrea. “In this case, stones typically won’t pass on their own and you will need surgery or medication to remove them.”
Kidneys contains a lot of blood vessels. In fact, one quarter of the blood pumped by the heart goes to the kidney. Glomerulonephritis occurs when the tiny filters in the kidney, called glomeruli, become inflamed and do not work appropriately because of swelling or “sticky” antibodies breaking down these filters.
Glomerulonephritis is often caused by autoimmune diseases such as lupus, Sjogren’s disease, or other conditions such as vasculitis.
“Glomerulonephritis always requires treatment and is serious, often requiring both blood testing and a kidney biopsy to definitively diagnose,” said Dr. Andrea. “Based on the cause, treatment commonly includes medications that suppress your immune system, or plasmapheresis, a treatment in which the water part of your blood is exchanged and antibodies are removed.
Depending on severity, Glomerulonephritis may require dialysis as well.”
Signs & Symptoms of Kidney Disease
While there are many signs of kidney disease, often people attribute them to other conditions so do not seek care early. Commons signs there may be problems with your kidneys include:
- Swelling of the ankles, feet, or legs.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Poor appetite.
- Fatigue and weakness.
- Sleep issues such as not sleeping well.
- Urinating more or less frequently.
- Blood in your urine or urine which appears brown or tea-colored.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Muscle cramps.
- Dry, itchy skin.
- High blood pressure that’s difficult to control.
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
“I recommend people see their doctor regularly and discuss with them what types of preventative screenings and testing might be best for them based on their age and risk factors,” said Dr. Andrea.
Preventing Kidney Disease
Staying healthy is important to reduce your risk of developing kidney disease. Dr. Andrea recommends the following eight tips to help your kidneys remain healthy:
- There isn’t a magic amount of water to drink, but instead drink when you are thirsty. Drink water over soda or energy drinks.
- Limit salt intake. Be sure to read nutritional labels to see how much salt you’re really eating. A low salt diet is 2300 mg of sodium or less daily.
- Maintain a healthy weight and avoid fad diets or weight loss supplements sold over-the- counter. Historically, many diet supplements have caused kidney disease or failure.
- Do not smoke, or work on quitting smoking. Quitting smoking can by itself improve blood pressure and kidney function.
- Limit alcohol to no more than 7 drinks weekly and no more than 2 drinks per night.
- Participate in cardiovascular exercise for 45 minutes a day, five days a week. The goal is to break a sweat while exercising.
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep each day.
- If you have high blood pressure, monitor it regularly at home.
To learn more about keeping your kidneys healthy, visit the National Kidney Foundation.