Understanding Kidney Disease
Millions of people around the world suffer from kidney disease. In the United States alone, an estimated one out of every ten adults (roughly 26 million people) have this disease (at least some degree). People are often unaware of this condition until they start to exhibit symptoms. However, by this time, their disease may be in its advanced stages.
Despite advances in medicine that allow the early diagnosis of kidney disease, it remains the ninth leading cause of death in the United States. Today, half-a-million Americans are on dialysis. Over a hundred thousand of these patients are waiting for a kidney transplant – and the transplant list grows every day. Many of them will die waiting for a transplant.
Kidney disease is a dangerous condition. It’s essential to understand how to detect this disease and manage it successfully. The first step is to understand the role of the kidneys, and why they are so important to your health.
The Role of the Kidneys
Everybody is born with two fully functioning kidneys, though only one is required to be healthy. Their most well-known function is to remove wastes and harmful toxins from the blood, but they do much more than that. Your kidneys also regulate your fluid levels and balance important blood minerals such as sodium, phosphorus, and potassium.
Your kidneys release hormones that increase or decrease your blood pressure. They also release hormones that help direct the production of red blood cells in your bone marrow. Your kidneys are also responsible for the activation of vitamin D, which helps maintain bone health.
Your kidneys work non-stop to keep your body healthy. Every thirty minutes, they filter all the blood in your body. They need to maintain this pace to keep you healthy; if your kidneys became less efficient (or cease functioning altogether) your health and well-being is in serious jeopardy.
What Is Kidney Disease?
“Kidney disease” refers to any damage to, or disease of, one or both of your kidneys. If left untreated, this damage can result in the progressive failure and degeneration of your kidneys. Kidney disease is not contagious, but the consequences of leaving it untreated can be very serious for you and your family. Eventually, your kidneys will fail and cease to function, leading to major disease – and even death.
Causes of Kidney Disease
Kidney disease is usually the result of strain on your kidneys caused by conditions such as high blood pressure, hypertension, and diabetes. These conditions are responsible for over half of all cases of kidney disease.
Other conditions that result in kidney disease include:
− Long term use of medicines such as lithium
− Long term use of analgesics such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and NSAIDs
− Use of illicit drugs such as heroin
− Kidney stones or prostate disease
− Immune disorders such as lupus
− Kidney or urinary infections
− Malformations in the womb during development
− Inherited diseases such as polycystic kidney disease
Symptoms of Kidney Disease
Most people with kidney disease will not notice any symptoms until it becomes serious. Symptoms of kidney disease include fatigue and weakness; difficult, painful, or bloody urination; and inflammation around the face, hands, abdomen, ankles, and feet. People with advanced kidney disease may also experience itches and skin rashes, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms vary from person to person; ask your physician how you can be tested for kidney disease.
Am I at Risk?
While anyone can develop kidney disease, some people are at greater risk than others. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, existing heart conditions, or cardiovascular disease, be especially watchful for symptoms of kidney disease. Your ethnicity and any family history of kidney disease can also put you at greater risk of kidney disease. African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics have a greater risk than other ethnicities. Also, your kidneys lose function naturally as you age; if you’re over sixty, you have a higher risk of kidney disease.
Detecting Kidney Disease
If you are at risk of developing kidney disease, get yourself tested as soon as possible. Early detection is crucial; it can help you avoid further damage and deterioration of your kidneys. Contact your doctor and take at least one or two simple kidney disease tests:
Albuminuria-to-Creatinine Ratio (ACR): The ACR test examines certain proteins in your urine. It measures the amount of albumin, the presence of which may mean your kidneys are not functioning properly. Physicians often order several ACR tests over a period of several weeks; one positive result does not automatically mean you have kidney disease.
Glomerular Filtration Rate (GFR): This test determines your blood creatinine and measures your GFR. This tells your doctor how well your kidneys are functioning. A GFR of less than 60 may mean that you have kidney disease.
Treatment and Management
Damage to the kidneys is often permanent. However, there are ways to slow down kidney disease and prevent it from getting worse. The first and most important thing you can do is stay healthy. Eat well, exercise regularly, and don’t smoke or chew tobacco. You should also limit your alcohol intake; alcohol puts unnecessary strain on your kidneys. If you have diabetes or hypertension, control those conditions through diet and medication to give your kidneys a break.
In addition to these steps, stay aware of your test numbers. Know your GFR and ACR and take regular tests to determine the extent of your kidney damage. Talk with your doctor about your existing prescriptions, and have them adjusted if necessary. Some medications can harm your kidneys, especially if they are already compromised. In addition, make sure to have your blood pressure and blood cholesterol checked on a regular basis.
If your kidney disease does result in kidney failure, you have two options. The first is regular dialysis to keep wastes and harmful toxins from accumulating in your blood. If you have advanced kidney disease, your other option is to get placed on the transplant waiting list and hope for a chance at a kidney transplant. The average wait time on this list is three-and-a-half years; only twenty thousand kidney transplants are performed per year.
Because your treatment options are limited, it’s important to detect and manage your kidney disease before it leads to kidney failure. This disease is life-threatening, but awareness of your risk factors, regular testing, and proper management of your disease, can slow down your kidney disease, allowing you to live a full and happy life!