What Is Kidney Disease? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Your kidneys play an essential role in your body, cleaning waste products and toxins out of your blood and producing urine. Sometimes, due to disease, infection, or other causes, your kidneys may lose their ability to function properly. When this happens, it means you have kidney disease. Learning about kidney disease can help you understand how to maintain your health and advocate for yourself while living with this condition.

About The Kidneys

You can develop kidney disease when your kidneys get injured and no longer work as they should. Normally, your kidneys perform many important functions, including: 

  • Filtering out harmful waste from the blood
  • Regulating your water and electrolyte status
  • Making hormones
  • Producing urine
  • Returning clean blood to your body

If your kidneys are damaged, they cannot filter out waste products efficiently. Then nitrogen waste products and toxins build up in your blood. This can cause issues throughout your body, such as in your heart, lungs, bones, and brain. If you leave it untreated, this buildup can be deadly, which is another reason why the kidneys are so important and why it’s essential to understand kidney disease.

Causes

Kidney disease is classified into two types: acute and chronic. 

Acute Kidney Disease

Acute kidney disease, also called acute kidney failure, happens when your kidneys suddenly can’t filter your blood properly. This failure usually happens over a few hours or days, and it often happens to people who are already hospitalized and getting care for another health condition. You can usually get better from this type of kidney disease. Acute kidney disease can occur when you:

  • Don’t have enough blood flow to your kidneys.
  • Have a blockage in your ureters, the tubes that connect your kidneys to your bladder. This prevents urine from exiting and causes the waste to back up into your kidneys.
  • Get direct damage to your kidneys from an infection, blood clot, or other condition.
  • Take certain medications that injure the kidneys, like some antibiotics or the contrast used for CT and MRI.

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) occurs over months or years as your kidneys slowly lose their ability to function. This type of kidney disease usually does not get better even with treatment but instead leads to dialysis or transplant. CKD can occur due to certain medical conditions that impair kidney function, such as:

  • Uncontrolled diabetes is the most common cause of chronic kidney disease
  • High blood pressure that is uncontrolled is the second most common
  • Frequent kidney infections
  • Other kidney disease like prolonged blockage with kidney stones 

Symptoms

Usually, kidney disease happens without any symptoms that you notice at home. Instead, this problem is detected on routine bloodwork that your doctor orders for you. This is why keeping up with your regular doctor’s visits is so important, especially if you have a problem like diabetes or high blood pressure

Diagnostic Tests

Your doctor can diagnose you with kidney disease with the following tests:

  • Blood tests: Your doctor may check your blood for waste products that your kidney should have filtered out. If they see waste products in your blood, that suggests that you have kidney disease.
  • Urine tests: Abnormalities in your urine, like the presence of protein, may suggest that you have kidney disease.
  • Imaging: CT scans and ultrasounds take images of your kidneys to look for any abnormalities.
  • Taking a sample of the kidney for testing: Your doctor can insert a needle into your kidney to take a sample of it and send it to a lab where they will check it for disease.

Stages of CKD

If you have CKD, your doctor will stage your disease to help determine what treatment plan is right for you. This means they’ll assess your kidney function and see how advanced your kidney disease is. To do this, your doctor will test your blood and urine. Your stage of CKD depends on your glomerular filtration rate (GFR). This test measures how well your kidneys are filtering wastes from the blood.

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There are five stages of CKD:

  • Stage 1 (GFR ≥ 90): In stage 1 CKD, your kidneys are only mildly damaged and work as well as they normally do.
  • Stage 2 (GFR 60-89): In stage 2 CKD, your kidneys are still working pretty well, but your doctor may notice protein in your urine. Normally, your kidneys filter protein back to make sure that it stays in your blood. With stage 2 CKD, however, your kidneys have a hard time keeping protein in the blood, so it may be lost in the urine.
  • Stage 3 (GFR 30-59): In stage 3 CKD, your kidneys don’t work as well as they normally would, and you may start having symptoms. If you improve your lifestyle and diet, you’re less likely to progress to stages 4 and 5.
  • Stage 4 (GFR 15-29): In stage 4 CKD, your kidneys have been severely damaged, and you’ll have symptoms like swelling or nausea.
  • Stage 5 (GFR < 15): Stage 5 CKD is complete kidney failure. You’ll need treatment with dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Treatments

Treating acute and chronic kidney disease is essential for maintaining your health. You should talk to your doctor about finding the right treatment plan for you.

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Acute Kidney Failure Treatment

 Options for acute kidney failure treatment include: 

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  • Controlling the amount of fluids in your blood: Your kidneys normally control how much fluid is in your blood. If you have acute kidney failure, you may have too much or too little fluid. If you have too little fluid in your blood, your doctor may give you fluids directly into your blood. If you have too much fluid in your blood, your doctor may prescribe a diuretic medication, which causes you to release extra fluid through your urine.
  • Medications: Kidney disease can cause potassium and calcium levels in your blood to become abnormal, leading to abnormal heart rhythms. Medications can help you keep the amount of potassium and calcium in your blood normal.

CKD Treatment

Treatments for CKD include:

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  • Medications: CKD can cause several other issues, such as swelling, high blood pressure, low levels of red blood cells, abnormal cholesterol levels, and bone disease. Your doctor may need to put you on several medications to manage all of these symptoms and conditions.
  • Diet changes: When your kidneys don’t work properly, they are unable to filter proteins as well. Your doctor may recommend that you eat a low-protein diet. They might also have you speak to a dietician so you can decrease the amount of protein you eat while maintaining a healthy diet.
  • Dialysis: Dialysis involves pumping blood out of your body, putting it through a machine that filters it, and returning it to your body. This is a treatment you can receive multiple times per week at a facility that is dedicated to doing dialysis. This treatment takes over the role of your kidneys, so it filters your blood for you and then returns the clean blood back to you, just like your kidneys normally would.
  • Kidney transplant: If your kidneys become too unhealthy, you may need a kidney transplant. This means you will get a healthy kidney from someone who has donated theirs. After you get a transplant, your doctor will put you on medications that prevent your immune system from attacking the donated kidney.

Next Steps

Set up an appointment with your doctor if you’ve been having symptoms of kidney disease. Both acute and chronic kidney disease should be treated as soon as possible. If you want to find support groups for people with kidney disease, you can contact the following organizations to make those connections:

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Learning that you have kidney disease can be difficult, but speaking to your doctor and learning more about it can help you manage your condition.

Resource Links:

  1. “Acute kidney failure” via Mayo Clinic
  2. “American Association of Kidney Patients” via AAKP – American Association of Kidney Patients
  3. “American Kidney Fund” via American Kidney Fund
  4. “Chronic Kidney Disease” via Frankel Cardiovascular Center | Michigan Medicine
  5. “Chronic kidney disease” via Mayo Clinic
  6. “Glomerular Filtration Rate: What Is a GFR Test?” via SymptomFind
  7. “National Kidney Foundation” via National Kidney Foundation
  8. “Protein in Urine (Proteinuria) Causes, Symptoms, Tests & Treatments” via American Kidney Fund
  9. “Stages of kidney disease” via American Kidney Fund
  10. “Renal Failure” via StatPearls