Health and Wellness

Kidney Disease: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and More

Kidney disease, often referred to as the silent killer, has become a growing global health concern that affects millions of people worldwide. Despite its prevalence, awareness and understanding of…

Kidney disease, often referred to as the silent killer, has become a growing global health concern that affects millions of people worldwide. Despite its prevalence, awareness and understanding of kidney disease remain low. The kidneys help maintain overall health by filtering waste products. Due to damage or impairment of the kidneys, these essential functions are compromised, leading to severe health complications and, in many cases, life-threatening conditions.

According to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017, Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) is one of the leading causes of death globally. This statistic underscores the urgent need for greater awareness, early detection, and effective management of kidney disease to prevent its progression and improve quality of life.

Understanding kidney disease is not only meant for those directly affected but also for caregivers, healthcare professionals, and the general public. Early diagnosis and intervention can significantly slow the progression of the disease, enhance patient outcomes, and reduce the burden on healthcare systems. 

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for kidney disease, providing you with the knowledge necessary to recognize the signs and take proactive steps toward maintaining kidney health. Before we get into the disease’s details, let’s cover the function of kidneys.

How Do the Kidneys Work?

Kidneys perform several vital functions essential for maintaining overall health. Located on either side of the spine, just below the rib cage, these bean-shaped organs are roughly the size of a fist. Despite their relatively small size, the kidneys play a critical role in filtering and purifying the blood, ensuring the body's internal environment remains stable and balanced. Here’s a closer look at how the kidneys work:

  • The primary function of the kidneys is to filter waste products from the blood. Each kidney contains a million tiny nephrons, where filtration begins. They allow water, salts, glucose, and waste products to pass into a tubule while retaining larger molecules like proteins in the bloodstream.
  • As the filtered fluid, known as filtrate, passes through the tubule, the kidneys selectively reabsorb essential substances back into the bloodstream. These substances include water, electrolytes, and nutrients. 
  • Simultaneously, the kidneys secrete additional waste products and excess ions into the tubule. 
  • The kidneys also regulate electrolyte levels ( sodium, potassium, and calcium) by adjusting their reabsorption and excretion. 
  • Kidneys eliminate waste products generated by metabolic processes in the form of urine and prevent their buildup in the blood.

What is a Kidney Disease?

Kidney disease refers to conditions that impair your kidneys' ability to clean your blood, remove excess water, and regulate blood pressure. Given the kidneys' critical roles in filtering waste, balancing electrolytes, producing hormones, and regulating blood pressure, any compromise in their function can lead to health issues. 

Kidney disease can be acute, occurring suddenly, or chronic, developing over time.

Kidney Disease Symptoms

While some individuals may experience no symptoms in the early stages, others may notice subtle changes that indicate a decline in kidney function. Common symptoms of kidney disease include:

  1. Changes in urination in terms of frequency or difficulty in urinating
  2. Swelling in the ankles, legs, face, or other parts of the body 
  3. Persistent fatigue, weakness, or lack of energy
  4. Insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns
  5. Nausea and vomiting
  6. Shortness of breath
  7. Hypertension, often difficult to control with medication
  8. Loss of appetite or sudden weight loss
  9. Muscle cramps, particularly in the legs

Common Causes of Kidney Disease

Kidney disease can stem from various factors, including underlying health conditions, genetic predispositions, and lifestyle choices. Understanding the common causes can help individuals take preventive measures and mitigate their risk of developing kidney problems. 

Here are some prevalent causes of kidney disease:

  • Uncontrolled or poorly managed diabetes 
  • High blood pressure (Hypertension)
  • Polycystic Kidney Disease or PKD (a genetic disorder characterized by the growth of numerous fluid-filled cysts in the kidneys) 
  • Urinary tract obstruction in the form of kidney stones, tumors, or enlarged prostate glands
  • Frequent or poorly treated kidney infections 
  • Autoimmune diseases like lupus and autoimmune vasculitis 
  • Certain medications like (NSAIDs), antibiotics, and certain chemotherapy drugs
  • Heavy alcohol consumption 
  • Smoking

Types of Kidney Disease

Kidney disease encompasses a range of conditions that can affect the structure/function of the kidneys. The following table covers some of the most common types of kidney disease:

Type of Kidney Disease


Possible Causes

Acute Kidney Injury (AKI)

Sudden and often reversible loss of kidney function

Severe dehydration, infection, injury, certain medications

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)

Long-term condition characterized by gradual loss of kidney function

Diabetes, high blood pressure, glomerulonephritis, polycystic kidney disease


Inflammation of the glomeruli, the filtering units in the kidneys

Infections, autoimmune diseases, chronic conditions

Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD)

Genetic disorder characterized by growth of numerous cysts in the kidneys

Genetic mutations, inherited in an autosomal dominant or recessive pattern

Kidney Stones (Nephrolithiasis)

Hard mineral and salt deposits that form in the kidneys

Dehydration, certain diets, obesity, certain medical conditions

Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Bacterial infections affecting the kidneys, ureters, bladder, or urethra

Bacterial invasion, poor hygiene, urinary tract abnormalities

Renal Cysts

Fluid-filled sacs that can develop in the kidneys

Benign, may require treatment if large or complex

Kidney Cancer

Cancer originating in the cells of the kidney

Genetic predisposition, smoking, obesity, exposure to certain chemicals

Hypertensive Nephropathy

Kidney damage caused by chronic high blood pressure

Chronic hypertension, damage to blood vessels in the kidneys

How to Diagnose a Kidney Disease?

Diagnosing kidney disease involves a combination of medical history review, physical examination, laboratory tests, and imaging studies. Here are the key steps in diagnosing kidney disease:

  1. Medical history and physical examination review (including any existing health conditions, family history of kidney disease, medications, and lifestyle factors)
  2. Blood tests to evaluate kidney function and detecting abnormalities in blood chemistry.
  3. Urinalysis to assess kidney function and detect abnormalities such as proteinuria (protein in the urine), hematuria (blood in the urine), and urinary sediment. 
  4. Imaging studies, such as ultrasound, CT scans, or MRI to visualize the kidneys and assess their structure, size, and presence of abnormalities such as cysts, tumors, or obstructions
  5. Kidney biopsy to obtain a tissue sample for microscopic examination

More About Kidney Disease Treatment

Treatment for kidney disease aims to slow its progression, manage symptoms, and prevent complications. The specific approach to treatment depends on the type and stage of kidney disease, and individual health factors. 

Here are common treatments for kidney disease:



Lifestyle Modifications

- Balanced diet low in sodium, phosphorus, and potassium
- Protein intake limitation

- Fluid intake monitoring

- Regular physical activity

- Smoking cessation and alcohol limitation


- Blood pressure medications (ACE inhibitors, ARBs)

- Diuretics

- Phosphate binders

- Erythropoiesis-Stimulating Agents (ESAs)

- Cholesterol-lowering medications


- Hemodialysis

- Peritoneal dialysis

Kidney Transplant

Surgical implantation of a healthy kidney from a donor to replace failed kidneys

Treatment of Underlying Conditions

Management of diabetes, hypertension, and autoimmune diseases to prevent further kidney damage

Supportive Care

Dietary counseling, symptom management, emotional support, and patient education


Can kidney diseases be cured?

While some forms of kidney disease can be managed or slowed in progression with treatment, most chronic kidney diseases are not curable. However, early detection and intervention can help preserve kidney function and improve quality of life. In cases of last-stage kidney disease, kidney transplantation may offer a cure, providing a new, healthy kidney to replace the failed ones.

What are the first signs of kidney disease?

The early stages of kidney disease may present with subtle symptoms or no symptoms at all. However, common signs to watch for include changes in urination patterns, swelling in the ankles or face, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, weakness, and elevated blood pressure. If you experience any of these symptoms, consult a healthcare professional for evaluation and testing. 

What is the suggested diet for kidney disease patients?

For kidney disease patients, a suggested diet typically involves:

  • Limiting sodium intake to help control blood pressure and reduce fluid retention
  • Monitoring protein consumption to lessen the workload on the kidneys
  • Restricting phosphorus and potassium intake to manage electrolyte balance
  • Including high-quality protein sources like poultry, fish, and eggs
  • Incorporating fruits and vegetables low in potassium, such as apples, berries, and cabbage
  • Drinking plenty of water within recommended limits, unless advised otherwise by a healthcare professional
  • Working closely with a registered dietitian to create a personalized meal plan tailored to individual needs and stage of kidney disease.

Is kidney disease hereditary?

Yes, kidney disease can have a hereditary component. Certain genetic conditions, such as PKD, are inherited and can lead to kidney problems. Additionally, a family history of kidney disease may increase an individual's risk of developing kidney problems. However, not all kidney diseases are hereditary, and environmental factors and lifestyle choices also play significant roles in kidney health. 

How long can someone live with kidney disease?

The life expectancy of someone with kidney disease varies depending on the type and severity of kidney disease, overall health, treatment adherence, and access to medical care. With proper management, early detection, and treatment, many people with kidney disease can live long and fulfilling lives. However, in cases of advanced kidney disease or end-stage renal failure, life expectancy may be significantly reduced without interventions such as dialysis or kidney transplantation. 


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