March is National Kidney Month, the perfect time to focus on these small but powerful organs that help keep our bodies healthy. Kidneys are instrumental to our overall health, so it’s important to protect them and to be on the lookout for something going wrong with them.
The kidneys are bean-shaped organs located in the midsection of the body, one on the left and one on the right. They are about the size of your fist. The primary job of the kidneys is to help remove liquid waste and salt from the body. The kidneys do this by filtering the blood and extracting the waste, which in turn produces urine.
Our kidneys are a remarkably efficient filtration system: they filter all the blood in our bodies every half hour! Each day, they filter up to 150 quarts of blood and produce a couple of quarts of urine.
There are several health conditions that can affect the kidneys.
Chronic Kidney Disease
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is both common and serious. CKD occurs when the kidneys can no longer filter blood as effectively as they once did. This can result in excess waste and fluid remaining in the body. CKD may also increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, anemia and other health problems.
CKD is a leading cause of death in the United States. It is estimated that about 15% of American adults have CKD, and most of them do not know they have it.
CKD is often indicative of one or more underlying health conditions. It is atypical for an otherwise healthy person to be diagnosed with CKD. The most common conditions associated with CKD are hypertension and diabetes.
Diabetes is the leading cause of chronic kidney disease. In fact, about 25% of all diabetics also have kidney disease. One of the dangers of diabetes is that high levels of glucose, or blood sugar, damage the kidneys over time.
Hypertension (high blood pressure) is the second-leading cause of kidney disease. Over time, hypertension damages blood vessels throughout the body, including in the kidneys. When this happens, the kidneys may not function as well as they used to.
Together, diabetes and hypertension cause about 74% of all cases of CKD.
Managing diabetes by keeping blood sugar levels in the target range and lowering blood pressure levels are two of the most important things someone at risk of kidney disease can do. In addition, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and getting frequent exercise are two steps everyone should take to promote healthy kidneys.
Obesity and a family history of kidney disease are also known risk factors for CKD.
Treating Chronic Kidney Disease
Chronic kidney disease does not produce symptoms in its early stages. That’s why people who have significant risk factors, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, need to be screened regularly for CKD. CKD is diagnosed through blood and urine tests.
For people who are diagnosed with CKD, there are several measures they can take to manage the disease and slow its progression. Those include:
- If diabetic, keep your A1C readings – three-month averages of glucose levels – within your goal range, as established by your physician.
- Work to keep blood pressure within goal, as established by your physician
- Eat healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables
- Avoid foods with high levels of sodium
- Get regular exercise
- Keep your cholesterol within the recommended range, as established by your physician
- Lose weight if overweight
- Take any prescribed medications for diabetes or hypertension
- If you smoke, quit
While CKD does often get worse over time, it can be treated. The sooner treatment starts, the better the odds of slowing the progression of the disease.
At an advanced stage, chronic kidney disease can cause kidney failure. Kidney failure occurs when the kidneys are no longer able to filter blood, causing waste and fluid buildup in the body.
There are three treatments for kidney failure:
Hemodialysis: in this process, blood is filtered through a machine outside the body. A needle is inserted into the arm to remove the blood. After it has filtered through a dialyzer to remove waste, salt and unwanted fluids, the blood is returned to the body through a second needle. Hemodialysis is usually conducted three times per week and treatments can last between three and five hours. Many patients go to a dialysis clinic for treatment, but in-home dialysis is also an option for some patients. Your physician can help you decide which choice is better for you.
Peritoneal Dialysis: This form of dialysis uses the lining of the abdominal cavity to filter the blood. A special solution is placed in the abdomen that serves to filter waste from the blood, which is then drained from the body. Peritoneal dialysis is done at home and often when the patient is sleeping at night.
Kidney Transplant: Doctors can transplant a kidney from a healthy person to a patient with kidney failure. Sometimes the transplanted kidney is thanks to an organ donor who has died. In other cases, a friend or family member may donate a kidney to a loved one, as people only need one kidney to live normally.
In a kidney transplant, the new kidney is placed in the front lower abdomen. The old, damaged kidneys usually remain where they are as the transplanted kidney takes over the work of filtering the blood. Special medications are administered following a kidney transplant to prevent the body from rejecting the new organ.
It is not unusual for people to wait years for a kidney transplant. The patient will need to undergo dialysis treatment while on the transplant waiting list. Even after a successful kidney transplant, the kidney disease is not cured – the transplant is a form of treatment, and careful monitoring of renal health is important.
Other Kidney Issues
Chronic kidney disease is not the only condition that can affect the kidneys. Other kidney ailments include:
Kidney stones can develop if mineral deposits build up in the kidneys. Men over the age of 40 are generally more susceptible to kidney stones. Symptoms of kidney stones include a sharp pain in the back, side, abdomen or groin, as well as blood in urine. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical attention.
Kidney stones are quite painful but are usually passed through urine without causing any permanent harm. In some cases, surgery may be required to remove them. Drinking plenty of water each day is one of the best ways to prevent kidney stones.
Kidney infections are a dangerous type of urinary tract infection (UTI). The UTI generally develops in another part of the urinary tract, such as the urethra or bladder, and travels up into the kidneys. Kidney infections are very serious and must be treated immediately.
Symptoms of a kidney infection include fever, back pain and a frequent and painful urge to urinate. Kidney infections are generally treated with antibiotics and require hospitalization. If not treated promptly, a kidney infection can spread to the bloodstream, a life-threatening condition.
Cancer of the kidney is relatively rare. The leading cause of kidney cancer is smoking. Symptoms of kidney cancer may include a lump or mass in the abdomen, blood in the urine, pain in the side or lower back that does not go away, and recurring fever.
Take Care of Your Kidneys
We can help take care of the kidneys the same way we protect our hearts and other parts of our bodies: by eating healthy foods, getting enough exercise and drinking plenty of water. If you have a chronic health condition, such as diabetes or hypertension, it is especially important to work with your physician to manage those conditions and have your kidney health checked regularly. Finally, should you need specialized kidney care, Privia Medical Group North Texas has respected nephrologists (kidney specialists) ready to help.
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