June 8th, 2020 | Updated on June 25th, 2020
The majority of people understand that the kidneys are involved in the body’s waste management system.
They take unwanted materials from the bloodstream, turn them into urine and eject them in a controlled manner.
On paper, it’s a very simple process. Yet, the science behind it is surprisingly complex.
It’s also what keeps us alive. So, it’s always worth learning about the wonders of the renal system.
Without healthy kidney function, your body could not sustain a viable balance of physiological chemicals.
The highly sensitive ecosystems within and around your internal organs break down.
So, yes, the kidneys are very important.
What Are Your Kidneys Doing Right Now?
Every moment of every day your kidneys maintain the balance of potassium, acid and salt essential for life.
Even small fluctuations in their respective volumes can lead to serious sickness which is why keeping the renal system healthy should be a priority.
The kidneys are also prolific hormone producers. They have a hand in regulating organ functions such as the creation of red blood cells and the rate of calcium metabolism.
They generate hormones to manage blood pressure.
It’s useful to think of them as highly efficient chemical factories, processing waste materials for safe removal at one end and pumping out hormones at the other. Here are some of the kidneys’ main jobs:
- Safely eliminate waste materials
- Ensure healthy hydration levels
- Produce hormones to manage blood pressure
- Remove toxins from the body
- Generate Vitamin D for healthy bones
- Regulate the formation of red blood cells
What Do Your Kidneys Look Like?
There are two kidneys in your body. Each kidney is about the size of a balled -up fist and located just to the side of the spine.
There’s one on either side of the spine, closest to your lowest rib. Each is filled with a million nephrons.
Nephrons are microscopic filtering components made up of a network of blood vessels known as a glomerulus.
Each nephron is like an individual filtration system within the larger recycling center of the kidney.
Blood flows into the glomerulus. There, it is cleaned and any waste materials and toxins are removed.
The waste liquids are channeled through a processing area called the tubule. Here, water and chemicals are added or removed depending on what the body does or does not need to retain.
The waste materials are disposed of as urine. The filtered blood is directed back to the bloodstream.
Every day, the kidneys clean around 200 quarts of circulating blood. Of this liquid, only two quarts get lost as urine. The remaining 189 quarts remain in the body to be used and filtered again.
Without this perpetual filtration process, the human body can’t function. It’s why individuals with advanced kidney disease are treated with an artificial form of filtration called dialysis.
Dialysis is, essentially, the same process with the difference being it happens outside the kidneys.
When a person’s organs cannot handle the job, a machine is used to remove the unfiltered blood, manually clean it (outside the body) and return it to the bloodstream.
What Are The Causes of Chronic Kidney Disease?
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) means your kidneys are damaged and can’t filter blood the way they should. The disease is called “chronic” because the damage to your kidneys happens gradually over a long period of time.
The clinical diagnosis for kidney disease includes two indicators. The first is abnormal functions or behaviors (such as protein in the urine) and the second is any degree of impairment lasting for longer than three months.
Together, these symptoms are a warning sign that tells a doctor to investigate.
There are various reasons why people develop chronic kidney disease. In some cases, dysfunctions are genetic and may not be avoidable.
In others, damage to the kidneys is caused by an underlying health condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Some people are born with congenital issues that go on to affect their kidneys later.
The following conditions are commonly linked to chronic kidney disease.
Diabetes is the number one cause of chronic kidney disease in the world. The condition is typically a lifelong ailment that impairs the body’s ability to produce or use insulin.
The result is unsustainably high blood sugar levels which can eventually lead to blindness, gangrene, skin infections, kidney disease and death.
High blood pressure (also called hypertension) can lead to chronic kidney disease.
The increased force of the blood pounding against artery walls causes damage. The arteries narrow and blood flow and oxygen to the kidney cells decreases.
Chronically high blood pressure must be managed and treated to avoid serious health problems.
Glomerulonephritis is characterized by inflammation of the glomeruli (the kidney’s mini filtration networks).
It is common for patients to experience symptoms and recover quickly. However, in a percentage of cases, the condition progresses slowly over time and leads to chronic kidney disease.
Polycystic Kidney Disease
Polycystic kidney disease is the most common genetic kidney disease. Patients develop rapidly growing cysts on the kidneys that cause organ damage.
If left untreated, kidney failure is almost guaranteed. Some other genetic kidney conditions include cystinuria, hyperoxaluria and Alport’s Syndrome.
Kidney stones are not usually life-threatening though they can be extremely painful and debilitating.
Some common causes include inherited diseases, urinary tract infections, obstructions in the kidneys and poor nutrition.
Most are treated with minimal medical intervention. The patient passes the stones naturally in their urine.
If the kidney stones are too large to pass, the patient must take a medication to internally fragment them first.
Urinary Tract Infections
Urinary infections develop when bacteria invade the urinary tract and cause an immune response.
Symptoms include painful and excessive urination. In most cases, urinary tract infections are treated before they make it to the kidney.
If treatment is not prompt, the inflammation can progress beyond the bladder and into the kidneys where it causes feverishness and pain.
Congenital diseases are sicknesses or impairments that develop before a baby is born. Congenital kidney disease, therefore, occurs in the womb when a mother has a severe or untreated urinary issue.
One example is the breakdown of the valve between ureter and bladder. The valve cannot effectively drain urine from the kidneys. Waste materials hang around for too long and cause infections.
As the job of the kidneys is to filter waste and toxins from the blood, they are sensitive to substance abuse.
Prolonged misuse of alcohol, heroin, crack and prescription medications can damage kidneys irreparably.
What Are the Symptoms of Chronic Kidney Disease?
Chronic kidney disease can be managed and treated before serious harm is done. This requires a very early diagnosis and intervention.
If treatment is delivered quickly enough, the prognosis is unlikely to include kidney failure.
Here are some common ways to test for the disease:
The ACR test stands for ‘albumin to creatinine ratio.’ It is a measurement of the protein in the urine.
Large amounts of protein indicate dysfunction within the glomeruli and a decline in filtration capacity.
Please note positive ACR tests can be caused by other sicknesses. For this reason, multiple positive readings are required for a diagnosis of kidney disease.
Blood Creatinine Test
Doctors may also measure blood creatinine levels. High levels indicate kidney dysfunction because creatinine is a waste product.
It gets removed from the blood of healthy people and shouldn’t be present in large volumes.
The GFR (or glomerular filtration rate) is an assessment of kidney function based on a person’s age, race, gender, lifestyle and/or blood creatinine and ACR measurement.
The calculation is a rough estimation of kidney function and capacities.
Who Is At Risk of Developing Chronic Kidney Disease?
Individuals with diagnosed kidney disorders are expected to attend regular medical assessments.
Regular exams and kidney function assessments are recommended, particularly for individuals who drink alcohol, eat poorly and/or rarely exercise.
Careful monitoring of risk factors and existing conditions is essential for preventing organ failure in the future.
The following people are considered at higher risk of developing chronic kidney disease.
- Older people
- Diabetes patients
- People with high blood pressure
- People with genetic links to kidney disease
- African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and Pacific Islanders
If you belong to any of these at risk groups, you have a right to request regular kidney assessments and monitoring from your doctor.
Is There A Treatment for Chronic Kidney Disease?
So-called lifestyle diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease cause damage slowly.
Prognosis depends entirely on when the patient is diagnosed and how advanced the disease is at the time.
The earlier it is identified, the faster medications can be given to prevent further harm.
For some, control of the disease then becomes a lifelong process. Treatments slow or freeze it but cannot repair existing damage.
Thus, a patient may be required to drastically change their lifestyle or take medications indefinitely.
In cases of severe disease, the kidneys may stop working and have to be replaced with artificial filtration (dialysis).
The last resort for patients with life-threatening kidney disease is an organ transplant. Doctors prescribe angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (or ACE inhibitors) to slow the disease’s progression.
What Is Dialysis and Why Is It Life Saving?
Today, even patients with very severe kidney disease are rarely beyond treatment. These individuals can survive and continue living a high-quality life but they may need intensive treatments for the rest of their lives.
Hemodialysis (or just ‘dialysis’) is the most common treatment for chronic kidney failure. Patients have their blood filtered by a machine on the outside of their body because their kidneys can no longer do the job.
The machine is in all respects an artificial organ. It cleans the blood and returns it to the patient’s body via an abdominal catheter.
It is an invasive treatment but a relatively simple one. Many patients can manage their hemodialysis independently and do not need to visit a clinic after the first few tries. It’s normally performed three times per week.
The Final Word On Chronic Kidney Disease
Early diagnosis is key to preventing serious damage to the kidneys.
This is why persistent issues with urination, bladder pain, high blood pressure or swelling in the limbs must be addressed by a doctor.
Here are six symptoms to look out for:
- Persistent high blood pressure
- Blood and/or protein in urine
- Excessive and/or painful urination
- Chronic swelling of the hands and feet
- Abnormal blood creatinine and/or blood urea nitrogen readings
- Glomerular filtration rate (GFR) under sixty
- Keep your blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg (or the target your doctor establishes for you).
- If you have diabetes, stay in your target blood sugar range as much as possible.
- Get active—physical activity helps control blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
- Lose weight if you’re overweight.
- Get tested for CKD regularly if you’re at risk.
- If you have CKD, meet with a dietician to create a kidney-healthy eating plan. The plan may need to change as you get older or if your health status changes.
- Take medications as instructed, and ask your doctor about blood pressure medicines called angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers, which may protect your kidneys in addition to lowering blood pressure.
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking can worsen kidney disease and interfere with medication that lowers blood pressure.
- Include a kidney doctor (nephrologist) on your health care team.
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