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What do kidneys do?

A kidney illustrated

Your kidneys are bean-shaped organs, each about the size of your fist. They are located near the middle of your back, just below the rib cage. The kidneys are sophisticated trash collectors. Every day, your kidneys process about 200 quarts of waste products and extra water. The waste and extra water become urine, which flows to your bladder through tubes called ureters. Your bladder stores urine until you go to the bathroom.

The wastes in your blood come from the normal breakdown of active muscle and from the food you eat. Your body uses the food for energy and self-repair. After your body has taken what it needs from the food, waste is sent to the blood. If your kidneys did not remove these wastes, the wastes would build up in the blood and damage your body.

What is “renal function”?

Your health care team may talk about the work your kidneys do as renal function. If you have two healthy kidneys, you have 100 percent of your renal function. This is more renal function that you really need. Some people are born with only one kidney, and these people are able to lead normal, healthy lives. Many people donated a kidney for transplantation to a family member or friend. Small declines in renal function do not cause a problem. In fact, you can be healthy with 50 percent of your renal function if it remains stable.

But many people with 50 percent of their renal function have a kidney disease that will get worse. You will have some serious health problems is your have less than 20 percent of your renal function. If your renal function drops below 10 to 15 percent, you cannot live long without some form of renal replacement therapy–either dialysis or transplantation.

Why do kidneys fail?

Most kidney diseases attack the nephrons, causing them to lose their filtering capacity. Damage to the nephrons may happen quickly, often as the result of injury or poisoning. But most kidney diseases destroy the nephrons slowly and silently. It may take years or even decades for the damage to become apparent.

The two most common causes of kidney disease are diabetes and high blood pressure. If your family has a history of any kind of kidney problems, you may be at risk for kidney disease.

Diabetic nephropathy

Diabetes is a disease the keeps the body from using sugar as it should. If sugar stays in your blood instead of breaking down, it can act like a poison. Damage to the nephrons from unused sugar in the blood is called diabetic nephropathy. If you keep you blood sugar levels down, you can delay or prevent diabetic nephropathy.

high blood pressure

High blood pressure can damage the small blood vessels in your kidneys. The damaged vessels cannot filter poisons from your blood as they are supposed to.

Your doctor may prescribe blood pressure medication . A group of blood pressure medicines called ACE inhibitors appears to give extra protection to the kidneys in patients with diabetes.

inherited and congenital kidney diseases

Some kidney diseases result from hereditary factors. Polycystic kidney disease (PKD), for example, is a genetic disorder in which many cysts grow in the kidneys. PKD cysts can slowly replace much of the mass of the kidneys, reducing kidney function and leading to kidney failure.

other causes of kidney disease

Poisons and trauma, for example a direct and forceful blow to your kidneys, can lead to kidney disease.

Some over-the-counter medicines can be poisonous to your kidneys if taken regularly over a long period of time. Products that combine aspirin, acetaminophen, and other medicines such as ibuprofen have been found to be the most dangerous to the kidneys. If you take painkillers regularly, check with your doctor to make sure you are not putting your kidneys at risk.

how do kidneys fail?

Many factors that influence the speed of kidney failure are not completely understood. Researchers are still studying how protein in the diet and cholesterol levels in the blood affect kidney function.

acute renal failure

Some kidney problems happen quickly, like an accident that injures the kidneys. Losing a lot of blood can cause sudden kidney failure. Some drugs or poisons can make your kidneys stop working. These sudden drops in kidney function are called acute renal failure (ARF).

ARF may lead to permanent loss of kidney function. But if your kidneys are not seriously damaged, acute renal failure may be reversed.

chronic renal failure

Most kidney problems, however, happen slowly. You may have “silent” kidney disease for years. Gradual loss of kidney function is called chronic renal failure or chronic renal disease.

end-stage renal disease (esrd)

The condition of total or nearly total and permanent kidney failure is called end-stage renal disease (ESRD). People with ESRD must undergo dialysis or transplantation to stay alive.