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Kidney health: Strategies for understanding and managing kidney disease

| Healthy You | Wellness

Woman gets her kidneys scanned by a doctor.

These bean-shaped organs are key to overall health.

Kidneys act like a filter for our body. Most of us have two of these bean-shaped organs that sit on either side of our spine just below the rib cage. Each is about the size of a fist.

They have many important duties that are key to helping us live healthy lives. They remove waste and extra water from blood to make urine. They also make hormones that create red blood cells, control blood pressure and keep bones strong.

If your kidneys aren’t working as well as they should, then it causes waste to build up in your body. This is called chronic kidney disease.

What is chronic kidney disease?

One in three American adults is at risk for kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

It’s when kidneys have a buildup of waste like extra protein and water. The most common causes are diabetes or high blood pressure.

If blood sugar remains high for many years, as with untreated diabetes, this will slowly lower your kidney’s ability to work.

High blood pressure, if left untreated, can damage blood vessels. This can cause damage in the kidneys too.

“Chronic kidney disease is a serious condition that affects millions of people worldwide, gradually impairing kidney function and leading to potentially life-threatening complications if left untreated. It is very important to raise awareness of chronic kidney disease to encourage early detection and proactive management.” says Michelle Pengshung, MD, a PeaceHealth internal medicine and nephrology physician in Vancouver, Washington.

What are the symptoms?

Kidney disease in the beginning is asymptomatic. As your kidney function gets worse, you may develop symptoms.

It's sometimes easy to miss subtle signs of kidney disease. But here are some of the most noticeable symptoms:

  • You’re urinating less often than usual.
  • You feel more tired or sleepy than usual.
  • You have swelling or weight gain.
  • You have trouble sleeping.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a blood test and a urine test to see how well the kidneys are working. The blood test also helps your doctor know how well your kidneys are filtering your blood.

They may also want to do an ultrasound (scan of your body) or CT scan (series of x-rays from various angles). These tests provide images of your kidneys and help your doctor see if anything is blocking the urine flow.

Sometimes your doctor will want to do a biopsy (tiny sample) of the kidney tissue. This can help with figuring out what caused kidney disease.

Early detection and management of kidney disease is important to slow its progression and prevent complications.

How is it treated?

If your kidney disease is from high blood pressure or diabetes, then treatment will start by managing the underlying cause.

If you have kidney failure, you'll probably have two treatment choices. Your doctor may recommend that you start kidney dialysis to filter wastes and extra fluid from your blood. Or the other option is to get a new kidney (transplant). Talk with your doctor to decide which is best for you.

How do I keep my kidneys healthy?

Making overall healthy choices for your body can affect the health of your kidneys. Try to:

  • Limit salt and protein to reduce strain on your kidneys.
  • Maintain an active lifestyle.
  • Avoid smoking or using tobacco.
  • Limit alcohol.
portrait of Michelle H. Pengshung MD

Michelle H. Pengshung MD

Internal Medicine

Dr. Pengshung is a board-certified nephrologist that focuses on the complexities of the kidneys. Her practice area includes dialysis, electrolyte disorders, and acute and chronic kidney disease. She earned her medical degree from University o f Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa, followed by her residency in Internal Medicine at University of Colorado in Denver, Colorado, and a fellowship in Nephrology at University of Washington in Seattle. “I want to help take care of patients and provide them the best information to make choices about their healthcare,” shares Dr. Pengshung, adding that she takes pride in effectively communicating with her patients. Away from work, Dr. Pengshung enjoys trying new restaurants, traveling, doing puzzles and spending time with friends and family.