According to the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse, the kidneys process about 200 quarts of blood every day and sifts out about two quarts of waste products and extra water. With the essential work they perform, it is important to have a complete understanding of their location, function, and the possible signs of disease.
The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs (actually resembling kidney beans) that are located in the middle of the back, with one on each side of the spine. Envision two fist-sized organs lying just beneath the rib cage but toward the back, with other organs such as the stomach, liver and large intestine in front of them.
The kidneys are part of the urinary system, which is responsible for producing, collecting, and eliminating urine. The kidneys have the job of removing waste and extra fluid from the blood and turning them into urine. Tubes called ureters carry urine from the kidneys down to the urinary bladder, which stores the urine until it is eliminated from the body.
Inside each kidney there are about a million structures called nephrons. Each nephron contains a system of tiny blood vessels that work like a sieve to filter the blood, keeping important cells, proteins, and minerals in the blood while allowing waste products to go into the urine. The kidneys also release chemicals that stimulate the production of red blood cells and regulate blood pressure.
Chronic kidney disease exists when damage to the kidneys occurs over a period of time. Left untreated, chronic kidney disease causes progressive damage to the kidneys. This damage occurs primarily in the nephrons and can't be repaired. As more of the kidney becomes damaged, it can't perform its job, and the ultimate result is permanent kidney failure.The most common causes of chronic kidney disease are high blood pressure and diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, about 43 percent of new patients needing dialysis for kidney failure are diabetic.
Acute kidney disease is the result of sudden damage caused by trauma, a heart attack or a sudden loss of a lot of blood. While this can quickly become permanent failure, there is a better chance of reversing the damage done by acute kidney disease than chronic.
Chronic kidney disease can easily result in permanent kidney failure because there aren’t any early warning signs. The only way to detect chronic kidney disease in its early stage is by testing the urine for a protein called albumin. Eventually you may begin to experience high blood pressure, muscle cramps, an increased need to urinate at night and swelling of the hands and feet. As the disease progresses, weakness and fatigue, nausea and vomiting, itchiness, darkened skin and difficulty concentrating occur. People who are diabetic may also notice a decreased need for medication.
Lifestyle changes are important for managing any stage of kidney disease, but if implemented in the early stages, they can slow down the rate at which the kidneys are damaged. The two most important factors are maintaining a normal blood pressure and, if you’re diabetic, managing blood sugar. Limiting protein, sodium and potassium in your diet will help reduce the amount of work the kidneys need to do. Smoking can affect the blood vessels in the kidneys, so be sure to eliminate the habit if you have kidney disease.