Supporting Patients and their Families

Patient Education

For more information please visit the National Kidney Foundation at:

What are the kidneys and what do they do?

The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located in your lower back, behind your abdominal organs. A kidney is made up of up to a million units called nephrons. Each nephron has a filtering unit of tiny blood vessels called a glomerulus, attached to a tubule. Approximately 25% of your blood passes through your kidneys each minute. The kidneys work to:

  1. Filter your blood to remove waste products and fluids. About two quarts are removed from your body through the ureters as urine; the rest of the fluids are recovered.
  2. Control your blood pressure from becoming too high. If the kidneys are not functioning properly to remove excess fluid from your body, your blood pressure can go up. The heart works harder pumping blood to the body when there is excess fluid.
  3. Produce a hormone called erythropoetin. This hormone works stimulates the production of red blood cells in your bone marrow.
  4. Produce the active form of Vitamin D that allows your body to absorb calcium; this promotes strong, healthy bones.

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What are the causes of kidney failure?

Chronic kidney disease may progress slowly over a long period of time. The kidney may show signs of beginning failure, but it has not progressed to kidney disease that requires dialysis or transplantation. If chronic kidney disease gets worse, waste products and fluids may build to high levels in your blood and make you feel sick. You may experience problems such as high blood pressure, anemia, weak bones, poor nutritional health, and nerve damage. If found and treated early, chronic kidney disease may be slowed or stopped. However, if it continues to get worse, chronic kidney disease may lead to chronic kidney failure. This means your kidneys no longer work well enough to maintain life and you need a treatment like dialysis or a kidney transplant.

There are also certain diseases that can lead to kidney failure. These conditions may cause the kidneys to stop working for a time period, but usually can be resolved and the kidneys return to normal function.

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What are signs and symptoms of possible kidney failure?
  1. High blood pressure
  2. Blood in the urine
  3. Pain in lower back at about the waistline
  4. Swelling, especially in the arms, legs, and face
  5. Frequent urination at night
  6. Nausea and vomiting

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Am I at increased risk for chronic kidney disease?

Risk factors for chronic kidney disease include:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • A family history of chronic kidney disease
  • Older age

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Other conditions that can harm the kidneys include:
  • Glomerulonephritits: A disease that causes inflammation of the kidneys. It can have multiple forms and causes. It is one of the leading causes of kidney failure.
  • Inherited diseases like Polycystic kidneys: This is when one or both of the kidneys develop multiple cysts which destroy normal kidney tissue. This is a genetic condition passed on from parents.
  • Renal cancer: This is when one or both of the kidneys have a cancerous mass affecting the work of the kidney. A mass found on only one kidney can usually be removed and the second kidney can perform all the necessary filtering.

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What if I have an increased risk for chronic kidney disease?

Go to your doctor and get tested to detect kidney disease at the earliest stage possible. Your checkup should include the following:

  • Check your blood pressure
  • Have a test for the presence of protein in your urine.
  • Have a simple test for creatinine, a waste product that comes from muscle activity.

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What if I have signs of chronic kidney disease?

Treatment depends on the stage of the chronic kidney disease. Some important things you can do include:

  • Control high blood pressure.
  • Control blood sugar.
  • Follow a special diet that controls the amount of protein you eat.
  • Treat anemia.
  • Prevent bone disease by keeping your phosphorus level in balance.
  • Follow an exercise program approved by your doctor.
  • Take steps to prevent heart problems.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Visit your doctor regularly.

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About Kidney Failure

Kidney failure in some acute phases and all chronic phases of the disease require treatment to sustain life. There are three options for treatment: hemodialysis, peritoneal dialysis, and kidney transplant. All three options have a team involved with their care. This team includes a dietician, social worker, nurse, and doctor. These people are also involved with those people approaching dialysis.

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Hemodialysis uses a machine to clean and filter your blood. This process temporarily removes wastes, extra salt, and excess fluids from your body. Hemodialysis helps control blood pressure and maintain the proper balance of important chemicals such as potassium, sodium, calcium, and bicarbonate.

Hemodialysis uses a special filter called a dialyzer. This filter functions as an artificial kidney to clean your blood. During treatment, your blood travels through tubes into the dialyzer, which filters out wastes and excess fluids. The filtered blood flows through another set of tubes back into your body. The dialyzer is connected to a machine that monitors blood flow and removes wastes from the blood.

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Peritoneal Dialysis

Peritoneal dialysis also removes extra water, wastes, and chemicals from your body. However, this type of dialysis uses the lining of your abdomen to filter your blood. This lining is called the peritoneal membrane and acts as an artificial kidney.

A mixture of minerals and sugar dissolved in water, called dialysis solution, travels through a soft tube into your abdomen. The sugar, called dextrose, draws wastes, chemicals, and extra water from the tiny blood vessels in your peritoneal membrane into the dialysis solution. After several hours, the solution drains from your abdomen through the tube, taking the wastes from your blood with it.

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Kidney Transplantation

Kidney transplantation surgically places a healthy kidney from another person into your body. The donated kidney does the work that your two failed kidneys used to do.

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