The kidneys are a pair of bean-haped organs in the back of the body. Each kidney is attached to the bladder, which is a distensible bag that collects urine. The kidneys make the urine, which flows downward through two tubes called the ureters, and collects in the bladder. Kidneys that function normally keep in balance many things in the body by altering the composition of urine that they produce.
Given the large number of roles the kidneys play in maintaining a person's health, it is easy to see how many symptoms can develop among patients with kidney failure. The kidneys are critical for survival; without them, patients develop multiple problems. These may range from excessive fluid retention, breathlessness, sleeplessness, a poor appetite and high blood pressure.
The kidneys have a large reserve and a large amount of kidney must be damaged even before a person has symptoms of renal disease. For this reason a patient may have significant kidney damage but still feel perfectly well, see a doctor only very late in the course of his disease. A patient with mild kidney failure may initially not feel anything at all and in fact may feel totally well. However, as the kidney disease progresses, symptoms become more apparent. Patients may develop:
Not all patients develop all these symptoms. Some develop these symptoms during different stages of their disease. Also, it is important to realise that these symptoms do not necessarily only mean that one has kidney disease. Each disease affects each patient differently and to different extent.
There are many causes of kidney disease and these affect the kidney to different degrees, causing them to fail at different rates. Some of these are inherited, and while others are related to existing conditions such as diabetes, and other inflammatory conditions or infections. A list of causes of kidney failure is provided.
Kidney disease can be so silent in the early stages that the patient may be perfectly well without any symptoms. However, apart from a physical check up, patients usually need urine and blood tests to detect renal disease.
The urine is usually tested for:
The blood is tested also for abnormally high levels of substances that accumulate in the body in the presence of kidney failure. They include:
Usually the initial screening tests can be done at a clinic with a sample of freshly collected urine. The urine is tested using a labstix. The labstix is a stick to which is adhered several chemicals strips which change their colour when there is abnormal amounts of blood, protein or sugar in the urine. In the presence of abnormal labstix testing, patients may need to collect their urine for 24 hours to allow the attending doctor to better assess the urine to confirm or exclude any urinary abnormality. Some patients may eventually need a kidney biopsy to distinguish the kind of kidney disease that they have, as well as to assess the eventual renal prognosis. A kidney biopsy is a minor surgical procedure in which a needle is inserted into the kidney (with anaesthesia) and a piece of the kidney is taken for microscopic examination.
It is important to realise that the presence of a single abnormal lab result does not necessarily equate to the presence of renal disease. An abnormal laboratory result implies that the patient needs to see a doctor. The doctor may consider either a repeat test or more extensive testing for the patient.
While any patient can benefit from having these tests done, there remain certain groups of persons who are at higher risk of renal disease who should in particular have regular renal function tests.
These groups include patients with:
Once kidney failure reaches a certain degree, it usually will progress to end stage kidney failure. Nevertheless, there are some common treatment that can benefit most patients with established kidney disease.