Healthy humans are born with two fist-sized kidneys, one on each side of the spine in the middle of the back at the bottom of the rib cage. The shape of this vital internal organ is so familiar that there is a bean named after it due to its remarkable resemblance – even the color: the kidney bean.
The paired renal arteries deliver oxygen-bearing blood to the kidneys. The paired renal veins exit the blood. A tube (ureter) carries urine excreted by the kidneys to the bladder.
Kidneys are important to good health because they carry waste byproducts out of the body through urination. “These glands control the blood fluid and mineral levels within the body by processing the blood to remove waste products and any excess fluid.”
The twin crucial endocrine glands also manage blood pressure and electrolyte levels which affect bone strength.
Specialized kidney cells secrete a hormone called Erythropoietin (EPO). EPO stimulates bone marrow stem cells to make red blood cells (RBCs) and raises production levels. Red blood cells live for about 115 days and two normal kidneys are able to replace those that die off naturally.
When something slows down one or both of the body’s essential waste removal organs, a person’s health declines, often slowly. Sometimes, the creeping signs of kidney failure are overlooked or underplayed. In many cases, kidney problems are linked to other causes or conditions.
Many people have only one kidney and lead the same normal, healthy lives as folks with two kidneys. Renal agenesis is the medical term for being born with a single kidney. Kidney dysplasia is the condition of being born with two kidneys but only one works. Some people with a lone kidney lost the other to damage or disease – or donated a healthy one to a needy transplant recipient.
Kidneys are astonishingly hardy and keep working as long as possible:
“Most people can maintain normal filtering in their kidneys even if they have lost 90% of kidney function. It is only when less than 10% of kidney function remains that metabolic problems can arise.”
If both kidneys shut down completely, seek emergency care immediately.
Medical dialysis may become necessary to prolong life after total kidney failure. Without this expensive procedure that replaces failed kidney function, a person can survive only for a matter of days or weeks, depending on overall health.
Everyone should know the basic signals that point to having a kidney exam with a health practitioner.
When one or both kidneys stop eliminating urine from the body, the backed-up liquid causes swelling – and not always where you might expect it: the lower back. The face, joints, and limbs may all swell up.
Sometimes, a kidney does swell up due to fluid build-up. This condition is called hydronephrosis. More rarely, both kidneys swell at the same time, indicating the need for prompt urgent care.
Visit your healthcare provider any time unexpected swelling occurs.
2. Urination changes
Go get a physical check-up if you have:
– Difficulty urinating and unexplained pressure.
– Bloody urine.
– Dark urine color, less frequent urination in small amounts.
– Pale urine color, frequent urination in large amounts.
– Foamy urine.
– Urges to urinate in the middle of the night.
Rather than swelling around the kidneys (lower back), many people with diseased kidneys suffer from back aches, both in the upper area and around the damaged kidney(s).
Kidney stones can become excruciating as uneliminated toxins harden into crystalline chunks. Kidney stones and infections can lead to severe spasms. Seek qualified help immediately.
Patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD) who have unusually high heart rates or chest pain – as the heart labors to stay oxygenated and alive – should consult with a doctor.
4. Skin rashes
Toxic wastes in the blood that accumulate because the kidneys are not flushing them out produce dry, itchy skin. Skin eruptions and rashes that itch terribly demand serious attention.
Avoid scratching and if lotions don’t hydrate inflamed skin, seek professional help. Perhaps your kidneys are at risk.
5. Fatigue or weakness
Reduced kidney function means reduced Erythropoietin (EPO) production – which, in turn, means fewer red blood cells (RBCs). This condition is called anemia. Red blood cells live for about 115 days and two normal kidneys are able to replace those that die off naturally.
Because there are fewer RBCs delivering life-sustaining oxygen throughout the body, fatigue sets in as energy levels drop. Physical capacity weakens.
Anemia is common among people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) and a red flag symptom to seek medical evaluation. Another common symptom of CKD is iron deficiency due to fewer RBCs carrying this essential mineral.
6. Shortness of breath, cold sensitivity and pale skin
Another side-effect of reduced oxygen in the body from sluggish kidneys is experiencing short-windedness. The lungs pump harder to provide the missing oxygen.
Likewise, less oxygen for the body to use can create sensitivity or out-and-out intolerance to cold.
Finally, anemic patients often have pale skin due to lower RBC counts.
7. Poor concentration and dizziness
Reduced oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain is a form of anemia that leads to problems concentrating, memory loss, and dizziness.
8. Metallic taste in the mouth
If food doesn’t taste the same, you have bad breath, or there is a metallic taste in your mouth, you may have damaged kidneys.
They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is certainly true as far as your kidneys are concerned. To improve and maintain good kidney health, get good rest, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet that focuses on kidney-friendly foods – those high in sodium (salt), potassium, and phosphorus.