The kidneys are two bean-shaped fist-sized organs in the lower back. They have the important job of sifting out waste and excess fluid from our blood. Waste and water accumulate in our blood after the body takes what it needs from our food. If the leftover waste builds up too much, it can wreak havoc on the body and its functions. The kidneys are basically super-efficient trash disposal units. They work non-stop, processing up to 200 quarts of blood a day. When they stop working, the toxins in your blood can build up to dangerous levels. It’s called renal—or kidney—failure, and it can be fatal.
Kidney failure can be acute or chronic. Acute kidney failure can develop in a matter of days. It’s most common among critically ill people already in the hospital. In those cases, their kidneys fail because of the primary illness. Among otherwise healthy people, there are a few causes of acute renal failure. Going into shock due to extreme blood loss or dehydration can reduce blood flow to the kidneys, causing them to shut down. Another less common cause of acute kidney failure is an obstruction in the urinary tract, sometimes caused by an enlarged prostate.
Chronic kidney failure develops over months and years. Also called kidney disease, it involves the gradual loss of kidney function. Here are seven things you need to know about chronic renal failure:
1. Diabetes is one of the top causes of chronic kidney failure.
Uncontrolled diabetes is responsible for many chronic and acute conditions. Chief among them is kidney disease; around a quarter of Americans with diabetes also have chronic kidney failure. High blood sugar can damage the kidney’s blood vessels, stunting their function. This can lead to gradual kidney failure. The best way to prevent kidney failure is to keep your diabetes under control. Other important changes to make are to follow your diabetic diet, manage your weight, exercise frequently, and quit smoking.
2. High blood pressure is the other leading cause of kidney disease.
Your blood pressure is the measure of how forcefully your heart is pumping your blood through your blood vessels. When your blood pressure is too high, it stretches out the blood vessels so it can flow more easily. This stretching weakens and scars blood vessels all around your body. In the kidney, the damaged blood vessels just aren’t as effective at removing wastes and excess fluid.
When someone with uncontrolled diabetes also has high blood pressure, it’s a sure recipe for renal failure.
3. Know if you’re at risk of kidney failure.
Besides for diabetes and high blood pressure, there are several other factors that can influence your kidney health. You’re at risk of developing kidney failure if:
- You have heart disease
- Someone in your family had kidney failure
- You’re African-American, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic
- You’re over age 60
4. Early kidney failure has few to no symptoms.
The earlier you catch chronic kidney disease, the sooner you can take steps to help your kidneys. Unfortunately, there aren’t many early symptoms to help you out. The best way to catch kidney failure—and many other diseases—is to see your doctor regularly for a full workup. If you are at higher risk of kidney disease, ask your doctor how often you should get tested. A blood test called a Basic Metabolic Panel (BMP) measures different substances in your blood, including how much waste is there. An irregular result on a BMP can be the first indication that something is wrong with your kidneys.
5. Recognize the symptoms of chronic renal failure.
Remember that by the time you notice symptoms, the damage to your kidneys is much more advanced. Here are some possible warning signs that your kidneys aren’t working:
- Reduced urine output
- Swelling in your ankles, feet, and legs. This is caused by the kidneys’ failure to eliminate fluid waste.
- Shortness of breath for no apparent reason
- Exhaustion or fatigue
- Persistent nausea
- Chest pressure or pain
6. There is often no cure for kidney disease.
Depending on the underlying cause of the shutdown, and if it’s caught early enough before significant damage is done, some types of kidney failure can be treated. Most of the time though, there’s no cure for kidney failure. Treatment usually involves controlling symptoms, reducing complications, and slowing the disease’s progression.
7. End-stage renal disease requires dialysis or kidney transplant.
When damage to the kidneys is severe, it’s called end-stage renal failure or disease (ESRD). In ESRD, the kidneys have closet to zero function. The best chance for survival is a kidney transplant, a surgery where the diseased kidneys are removed and replaced by a healthy kidney from a live or dead donor. In the absence of a kidney transplant, ESRD patients must undergo dialysis two or three times a week. Dialysis is a grueling procedure in which a machine takes over the kidney’s function. The machine removes the patient’s blood, filters out the waste and toxins, and sends it back into the body.