What do my kidneys do?
Your kidneys are bean-shaped organs, each about the size of your fist. They are located near the middle of your back, just below the rib cage. The kidneys are sophisticated trash collectors. Every day, your kidneys process about 200 quarts of blood to sift out about 2 quarts of waste products and extra water. The waste and extra water become urine, which flows to your bladder through tubes called ureters. Your bladder stores urine until you go to the bathroom.
The wastes in your blood come from the normal breakdown of active muscle and from the food you eat. Your body uses the food for energy and self-repair. After your body has taken what it needs from the food, waste is sent to the blood. If your kidneys did not remove these wastes, the wastes would build up in the blood and damage your body.
The actual filtering occurs in tiny units inside your kidneys called nephrons. Every kidney has about a million nephrons. In the nephron, tiny blood vessels called capillaries intertwine with tiny urine-carrying tubes called tubules. A complicated chemical exchange takes place, as waste materials and water leave your blood and enter your urinary system.
At first, the tubules receive a combination of waste materials and chemicals that your body can still use. Your kidneys measure out chemicals like sodium, phosphorus, and potassium and release them back to the blood to return to the body. In this way, your kidneys regulate the body's level of these substances. The right balance is necessary for life, but excess levels can be harmful.
In addition to removing wastes, your kidneys release three important hormones:
- Erythropoietin (eh-RITH-ro-POYeh-tin), or EPO, which stimulates the bones to make red blood cells.
- Renin (REE-nin), which regulates blood pressure.
- The active form of vitamin D, which helps maintain calcium for bones and for normal chemical balance in the body.
What is "renal function"?
Your health care team may talk about the work your kidneys do by using the term "renal function." If you have two healthy kidneys, you have 100 percent of your renal function. This is more renal function than you really need. Some people are born with only one kidney, and these people are able to lead normal, healthy lives. Many people donate a kidney for transplantation to a family member or friend. Small declines in renal function do not cause a problem. In fact, you can be healthy with 50 percent of your renal function if it remains stable.
But many people with 50 percent of their renal function have a kidney disease that will get worse. You will have some serious health problems if you have less than 20 percent of your renal function. If your renal function drops below 10 to 15 percent, you cannot live long without some form of renal replacement therapy--either dialysis or transplantation.
Why do kidneys fail?
Most kidney diseases attack the nephrons, causing them to lose their filtering capacity. Damage to the nephrons may happen quickly, often as the result of injury or poisoning. But most kidney diseases destroy the nephrons slowly and silently. It may take years or even decades for the damage to become apparent.
The two most common causes of kidney disease are diabetes and high blood pressure. If your family has a history of any kind of kidney problems, you may be at risk for kidney disease.
Diabetes is a disease that keeps the body from using sugar as it should. If sugar stays in your blood instead of breaking down, it can act like a poison. Damage to the nephrons from unused sugar in the blood is called diabetic nephropathy . If you keep your blood sugar levels down, you can delay or prevent diabetic nephropathy.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure can damage the small blood vessels in your kidneys. The damaged vessels cannot filter poisons from your blood as they are supposed to.
Your doctor may prescribe blood pressure medication. A group of blood pressure medicines called ACE inhibitors appears to give extra protection to the kidneys in patients with diabetes.
Inherited and congenital kidney diseases
Some kidney diseases result from hereditary factors. Polycystic kidney disease (PKD), for example, is a genetic disorder in which many cysts grow in the kidneys. PKD cysts can slowly replace much of the mass of the kidneys, reducing kidney function and leading to kidney failure.
Some kidney problems may show up when a child is still developing in the womb. Examples include autosomal recessive PKD , a rare form of PKD, and other developmental problems that interfere with the normal formation of the nephrons. The signs of kidney disease in children vary. A child may grow unusually slowly, may vomit often, or may have back or side pain. Some kidney diseases may be "silent" for months or even years.
If your child has a kidney disease, your child's doctor should find it during a regular checkup. Be sure your child sees a doctor regularly. The first sign of a kidney problem may be high blood pressure, a low number of red blood cells (anemia), or blood or protein in the child's urine. If the doctor finds any of these problems, further tests may be necessary, including additional blood and urine tests or radiology studies. In some cases, the doctor may need to perform a biopsy--removing a piece of the kidney for inspection under a microscope.
Some hereditary kidney diseases may not be detected until adulthood. The most common form of PKD was once called "adult PKD" because the symptoms of high blood pressure and renal failure usually do not occur until patients are in their twenties or thirties. But with advances in diagnostic imaging technology, doctors have found cysts in children and adolescents before any symptoms appear.
Other causes of kidney disease
Poisons and trauma, for example a direct and forceful blow to your kidneys, can lead to kidney disease.
Some over-the-counter medicines can be poisonous to your kidneys if taken regularly over a long period of time. Products that combine aspirin, acetaminophen, and other medicines such as ibuprofen have been found to be the most dangerous to the kidneys. If you take painkillers regularly, check with your doctor to make sure you are not putting your kidneys at risk.
How do kidneys fail
Many factors that influence the speed of kidney failure are not completely understood. Researchers are still studying how protein in the diet and cholesterol levels in the blood affect kidney function.
Acute renal failure
Some kidney problems happen quickly, like an accident that injures the kidneys. Losing a lot of blood can cause sudden kidney failure. Some drugs or poisons can make your kidneys stop working. These sudden drops in kidney function are called acute renal failure (ARF).
ARF may lead to permanent loss of kidney function. But if your kidneys are not seriously damaged, acute renal failure may be reversed.
Chronic renal failure
Most kidney problems, however, happen slowly. You may have "silent" kidney disease for years. Gradual loss of kidney function is called chronic renal failure or chronic renal disease .
End stage renal disease
The condition of total or nearly total and permanent kidney failure is called end-stage renal disease (ESRD). People with ESRD must undergo dialysis or transplantation to stay alive.
What are the signs of kidney disease?
People in the early stages of kidney disease may not feel sick at all. The first signs that you are sick may be general: frequent headaches or feeling tired or itchy all over your body.
If your kidney disease gets worse, you may need to urinate more often or less often. You may lose your appetite or experience nausea and vomiting. Your hands or feet may swell or feel numb. You may get drowsy or have trouble concentrating. Your skin may darken. You may have muscle cramps.
Adapted from the National Institutes of Health, 3/00
Last reviewed March 2000 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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