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How do you know if anything is wrong with your kidneys?

The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located on either side of the spine behind the abdomen. The kidneys filter waste and extra fluid from the blood and produce urine. They also help regulate blood pressure and keep bones healthy. Kidneys perform essential regulatory roles to keep the body in balance.

When the kidneys are not working properly, waste builds up in the blood and may cause symptoms like nausea, weakness, difficulty concentrating, appetite loss, and ankle swelling. Kidney disease is often silent and progressive, meaning symptoms may not appear until significant damage has occurred. That’s why it’s important to look out for signs of kidney problems and get checked by a doctor if anything seems off. Catching issues early makes them easier to treat.

What are the Main Functions of the Kidneys?

The kidneys serve many crucial functions, including:

– Filtering waste – The kidneys filter about 200 quarts of blood daily to remove waste and extra fluid, which produces 1-2 quarts of urine.

– Regulating fluid balance – The kidneys maintain the right amount of fluid in the body by conserving water when dehydrated or making more urine when there is excess fluid.

– Controlling blood pressure – Special kidney cells produce renin, which helps regulate blood pressure.

– Activating vitamin D – The kidneys activate vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium for healthy bones.

– Producing erythropoietin – This hormone made by the kidneys stimulates red blood cell production in the bone marrow.

– Balancing minerals – The kidneys keep electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and phosphorus balanced.

– Removing toxins – The kidneys filter and eliminate drugs, toxins, and metabolic waste from the body.

When the kidneys are damaged, they have trouble performing these functions. Waste builds up, blood pressure rises, and the body retains excess fluid.

What Causes Kidney Disease?

Many different conditions can lead to kidney disease. The most common causes include:

– Diabetes – Excess sugar in the blood damages kidney blood vessels over time. About 1 in 3 adults with diabetes has chronic kidney disease.

– Hypertension – High blood pressure can damage the small filtering units inside the kidneys.

– Glomerulonephritis – Inflammation and damage to the kidney filters. May be caused by infections, autoimmune diseases, drugs, or genetics.

– Interstitial nephritis – Inflammation of the kidney tubules and surrounding structures. Often due to an allergic reaction or side effect from medications.

– Urinary tract infections – Repeated or severe kidney infections can cause permanent scars and damage.

– Kidney stones – Can block urine flow and injure kidney tissue.

– Congenital diseases – Kidney issues present at birth, like polycystic kidney disease.

– Toxins – Heavy metal or chemical exposure can poison the kidneys.

In many cases, kidney disease has no identifiable cause and is referred to as chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology.

What are the Symptoms of Kidney Disease?

Kidney disease often develops slowly over many years without causing symptoms until irreversible damage occurs. When kidney function drops below 15-20%, signs may appear including:

– Fatigue and weakness
– Trouble concentrating
– Poor appetite
– Nausea and vomiting
– Swelling in the feet and ankles
– Puffiness around the eyes
– Dry, itchy skin
– Increased need to urinate at night
– Foamy or dark urine

Later stage kidney failure can also cause:

– Metallic taste in the mouth
– Bad breath
– Ammonia breath
– Restless legs at night
– Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
– Shortness of breath
– Chest pain due to fluid in the lining around the heart

Symptoms of a kidney infection, such as a fever, chills, and pain with urination, require prompt medical attention as infections can rapidly damage kidney tissue.

How is Kidney Disease Diagnosed?

If kidney disease is suspected based on symptoms or risk factors, the doctor will order one or more tests to check kidney function:

– **Blood tests** – Levels of waste products like creatinine build up in the blood when kidney function declines. Blood counts may show anemia. Electrolytes like potassium may be abnormal.

– **Urine tests** – Presence of protein, blood, and waste products in the urine points to kidney damage.

– **Imaging tests** – Ultrasounds and CT scans provide pictures of the kidneys to look for damage or blockages.

– **Kidney biopsy** – Removal of a small sample of kidney tissue to examine under a microscope. Helps determine the cause of kidney disease.

– **GFR** – Glomerular filtration rate blood test estimates how much blood the kidneys filter per minute. Less than 60 is abnormal.

– **Urinalysis** – Checks urine for crystals, cells, proteins, and bacteria pointing to UTIs, kidney stones, or glomerular damage.

Based on the results, the doctor determines the cause, severity, and prognosis of the kidney disorder. Periodic monitoring helps guide treatment.

What Factors Increase the Risk for Kidney Disease?

Several factors raise a person’s risk of developing kidney disease, including:

– Diabetes – The leading cause of kidney failure, due to high blood sugar damaging small vessels.

– High blood pressure – The second most common cause, which can scar the kidneys.

– Heart disease – Damaged arteries also impair blood supply to the kidneys.

– Smoking – Impairs kidney blood flow and function.

– Obesity – Excess weight strains the kidneys.

– Family history – Genetic predisposition to kidney disease.

– Age – Older adults have a higher incidence of kidney problems.

– Ethnicity – African Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and Indigenous Americans face higher risks.

– Autoimmune disease – Lupus, vasculitis, and others increase kidney damage risk.

– UTI history – Recurrent UTIs scar the kidneys over time.

– Acute kidney injury – Harm from trauma, shock, or toxins can lead to future kidney disease.

Controlling high blood pressure and blood sugar, maintaining a healthy weight, staying hydrated, and avoiding NSAIDs helps reduce kidney damage in at-risk groups.

What Conditions Result from Kidney Disease?

As kidney function declines, it can give rise to a number of health complications:

– **Fluid retention** – Excess fluid builds up in the body, causing swelling in the limbs, high blood pressure, and shortness of breath.

– **Anemia** – The kidneys produce insufficient erythropoietin needed for red blood cell formation, resulting in fatigue and weakness.

– **Uremia** – When the kidneys cannot filter waste, it accumulates in the blood and causes nausea, loss of appetite, confusion, and seizures.

– **Mineral imbalance** – Imbalances of sodium, potassium, and calcium impair heart rhythm and muscle function.

– **Weak bones** – Kidneys that cannot activate vitamin D lead to soft, brittle bones that fracture easily.

– **Nerve damage** – Toxins injure nerve fibers, causing numbness and pain, often first felt in the feet.

– **High blood pressure** – Damaged kidneys cannot regulate fluid and electrolytes properly, raising blood pressure.

– **Kidney failure** – End-stage kidney disease occurs when the kidneys can no longer sustain life. Dialysis or a transplant is needed.

How is Kidney Disease Treated?

Treatment for kidney disease depends on the specific diagnosis but generally aims to control the underlying cause and prevent further damage. Steps include:

– **Treating contributing conditions** – Tightly controlling diabetes and high blood pressure reduces kidney injury.

– **Medications** – Drugs that lower blood pressure, decrease fluid retention, and slow kidney damage progression.

– **Diet changes** – Limiting protein, sodium, potassium, and phosphorus intake.

– **Dialysis** – Using a machine to filter waste from the blood in end-stage kidney failure.

– **Kidney transplant** – Replacing a failed kidney with a healthy donated kidney.

– **Lifestyle changes** – Exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and quitting smoking.

– **Treatment of complications** – Anemia, bone disease, and fluid overload may require additional therapies.

The better kidney disease can be controlled, the less likely serious complications are to develop. Some types of kidney damage cannot be reversed, so early detection is key.

How Can Kidney Disease Be Prevented?

Several healthy lifestyle measures protect the kidneys and reduce kidney disease risk:

– Control blood pressure – Keep levels consistently below 130/80 mm Hg through diet, exercise, and medications if needed.

– Control blood sugar – Maintain hemoglobin A1C under 7% in diabetes through medication, diet, and lifestyle changes.

– Stay hydrated – Drink 6-8 glasses of water daily to avoid crystallization and stone formation.

– Maintain a healthy weight – Target a BMI under 25 through diet and exercise. Obesity strains the kidneys.

– Reduce sodium intake – Limit added salt and processed foods to avoid fluid retention.

– Avoid NSAIDs – Use acetaminophen instead of ibuprofen and naproxen, which can damage kidneys over time.

– Don’t smoke – Smoking constricts blood vessels, impairing kidney function.

– Get kidney stones checked – Stones that block urine flow injure the kidneys.

– Get checked for UTIs – Recurring infections strain the kidneys.

– Monitor medications – Stay aware of drug effects on kidney function.

Protecting kidney health through healthy lifestyle habits provides huge benefits for overall wellbeing.

When to See a Doctor

Consult a doctor promptly if you have any of the following signs:

– Persistent fatigue and weakness
– Swelling in the extremities
– Foamy or bloody urine
– Increased urination frequency
– Shortness of breath
– Nausea and loss of appetite
– Persistent itching
– Pain in the side or lower back
– Recurrent UTIs

The sooner kidney damage is detected, the better the chances of preserving kidney function. If an acute kidney infection or kidney stone is suspected, seek medical attention right away to avoid permanent damage.

Key Takeaways

– The kidneys filter waste from the blood while regulating fluid balance, blood pressure, vitamin D, and minerals.
– Diabetes, hypertension, infections, toxins, and genetics can all damage the kidneys over time.
– Loss of kidney function allows waste and excess fluid to build up in the body, causing symptoms like fatigue, swelling, and nausea.
– Kidney disease is diagnosed through blood tests, urine tests, imaging, and sometimes biopsy.
– Controlling underlying medical conditions, making dietary changes, taking medications, and dialysis help treat kidney disorders.
– Healthy lifestyle habits like staying hydrated, controlling blood pressure, and avoiding toxins can prevent kidney damage.
– Seeking prompt medical care for symptoms like increased urination frequency, puffy eyes, and back pain allows early treatment of kidney disease.


The kidneys perform vital roles in filtering waste and maintaining balance within the body. Many conditions can impair these functions over time, especially diabetes and hypertension. Looking out for symptoms like fatigue, confusion, swelling, and changes in urination helps identify kidney disorders so treatment can begin quickly. Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits provides crucial protection for the kidneys against damage from diseases and toxins. With prompt diagnosis and proper control of underlying medical issues, kidney disease often can be well managed to preserve kidney function and prevent serious complications.