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What Are The Symptoms Of Kidney Failure

Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Sep 26, 2018
Last Modified Date: Sep 26, 2018
Published Date: Aug 02, 2017

Are You At Risk For Kidney Failure? Know the Signs for Early Detection

Kidney failure is a potentially life-threatening condition in which kidney function deteriorates. It can be acute, happening rapidly and suddenly, but is more often chronic, occurring slowly over a number of years. Early detection and treatment of kidney failure can help prevent its progression into extensive and irreversible kidney damage. Since, kidney failure symptoms often do not appear until the kidneys have lost much of their normal function, diagnostic testing is an important means of identifying the condition before that permanent damage has occurred.

Kidney Function Basics

Each of our two kidneys contains up to a million tiny filtering units, called nephrons, which filter about 200 quarts of fluid every 24 hours, expelling approximately 2 quarts of that fluid as urine and returning the rest to the bloodstream. Through that process, the kidneys remove waste products from the body, clear drugs from the bloodstream, and balance body fluids and electrolytes. Kidneys also produce an active form of vitamin D that is essential to bone health, as well as hormones that regulate blood pressure and stimulate red blood cell production.

Kidney Failure

Acute kidney failure develops quickly over a few hours or days, the kidneys suddenly becoming unable to filter waste products from the blood. Acute kidney failure can be fatal without intensive medical intervention, but may be reversible in many cases with proper treatment. Common causes include:

  • Impaired blood flow to the kidneys, stemming from severe blood loss, infection, cardiovascular disease, liver failure, certain medications, or severe dehydration, allergic reactions or burns.
  • Direct injury to the kidneys, caused by trauma, blood clots, infection, toxins or a variety of diseases and medications.
  • Urine blockage, which can be the result of certain cancers, blood clots in the urinary tract, kidney stones, nerve damage or an enlarged prostate.
Chronic kidney failure, also called chronic kidney disease or chronic renal failure, is a slow, steady loss of kidney function over a period of months or years. Left untreated, the condition can progress to permanent kidney failure, or end-stage kidney disease, in which the kidneys have lost 90 percent or more of their functional capacity. At this point, artificial blood filtration (dialysis) or a kidney transplant is necessary for patient survival. Common causes of chronic kidney failure include:
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Inflammatory conditions affecting the kidneys
  • Recurrent kidney infection
  • Prolonged urinary tract obstruction

Kidney Failure Symptoms

For many people, no kidney failures symptoms appear until kidney function is severely inhibited. When symptoms are presented, they are the result of a buildup of waste products in the body.

  • General malaise is the most common symptom reported in the initial stages of kidney failure, with patients typically experiencing issues that can include fatigue, itching, headaches, poor appetite, nausea, difficulty sleeping, and frequent urination.
  • Edema can occur as kidney failure worsens, beginning with puffiness in the eye area, hands, feet and legs, then often progressing into fluid buildup in the lungs and around the heart.
  • Cardiovascular symptoms can occur with advancing kidney failure, such as elevated blood pressure production of hormones by the kidneys that regulate it becomes impaired, and changes in heart rate and rhythm as the kidneys fail to maintain proper electrolyte balance
  • Kidney failure can begin to affect the brain and nervous system as it progresses, causing problems like drowsiness, confusion, trouble concentrating, muscle cramps, or twitching and numbness or tingling in the hands and feet.
  • Changes in urination are common as kidney failure develops. Individuals may urinate more often or in greater amounts than usual, with pale urine, or they may urinate less often or in smaller amounts, with dark, concentrated urine. There may be blood in the urine or pressure, pain with urination.

How Kidney Failure is Diagnosed

Kidney failure, since it is often a silent disease, is often detected by physicians through routine health screenings or as a patient is treated for other medical concerns. When a patient shows symptoms of kidney failure or a physician suspects it due to a family history of kidney disease or underlying health factors, tests typically ordered to diagnose or confirm kidney failure include:

  • Blood tests to check for high levels of waste products in the bloodstream, such as urea and creatinine, and other markers that can indicate kidney disease.
  • Urine tests to detect blood and/or protein in the urine
  • Kidney scans, which may include MRI, CT or ultrasound imaging, to check for blockages and check the size and shape of kidneys.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, 26 million Americans are affected by kidney disease and millions more are at risk. While knowing the symptoms of kidney failure is important, regular testing, especially in individuals with known risk factors, such as diabetes, hypertension, or a family history of kidney disorders, can be the key to early detection of this often life-threatening condition.