National Kidney Month is the time to learn all about this essential organ
Did you know that March is National Kidney Month? If you work in healthcare—as a Practical Nurse, Nursing Assistant, Patient Care Technician, Home Health Aide, or other patient-centered role—it’s a good time to brush up on your knowledge about kidneys. They play a vital role in supporting the basic function of our bodies.
In the United States, one-third of adults have a high risk of developing kidney disease. So you are likely to encounter patients who have already been diagnosed, or may have kidney disease but do not know it. Knowledge is the best way to help patients be on alert for risk factors and signs of the disease. We’ve written this overview to give you a sense of some basic facts about this organ, how it functions, and how we can support our kidney health.
Basic facts about your kidneys
Each of your kidneys makes up less than one percent of your body weight, but is about the size of your fist. It’s a highly efficient organ, in that the same work both your kidneys do can be performed by only half of one kidney. For this reason, people are usually able to function even if they have only one kidney. If some portion of the kidney needs to be removed, it can still do its job at 75 percent of its original size.
How kidneys work
Your kidneys are made up of millions of nephrons. These tiny filters strain your blood to remove waste, some of which your body excretes as urine. In fact, your kidneys filter all of the blood in your body throughout the day, about every 30 minutes. This means that 120 pints of blood flows to your kidneys every hour—a quarter of all the blood pumped by your heart. This is more blood than goes to your brain or your liver.
Your kidneys are in contact with the rest of your body, and can send out an alert if your blood pressure drops or there is a decrease in oxygen in the blood. When you are dehydrated, the kidneys will wait for your blood volume to increase before it produces any more urine.
You may have heard of kidney stones, which can be very painful but generally not dangerous. These are made from are minerals and acid salts that can build up in the kidneys. The cause is often not drinking enough water or other liquids, which results in the urine being more concentrated. You can also get kidney stones from taking in high doses of calcium or antacids.
Kidney disease is a different story. Once you develop it, you will have it until you die. It is possible to slow its progression, but not to reverse it. One of the earliest signs of kidney disease is protein in the urine. People who are iron-deficient (anemic) can be vulnerable to kidney disease as well.
Some physical signs of potential kidney disease are swollen ankles and weight gain. This can be as a result of the kidneys being unable to filter the blood, which causes the body to retain water and salt. Learn to look for other signs of kidney disease.
The miracle of kidney transplants
Once you reach the stage of kidney failure (also called end-stage renal disease), your only choices are regular dialysis (a treatment to remove waste from your blood) or a kidney transplant. Because people can function with only one kidney, it is possible to donate a kidney to someone with kidney disease. Family members tend to be good matches, but this is not required to be a donor.
The first successful kidney transplant surgery took place in 1954, providing one twin with a kidney from another twin. In the U.S. today there are 100,000 people waiting on a donor list for a kidney, and the majority of them will wait from 3 to 5 years. So register to be an organ donor!
Kidney disease across the globe
According to an international study, kidney disease is on the rise; in 1990 it was no. 27 on a list of causes of death worldwide, but by 2010 had risen to no. 18. Ten percent of the global adult population is believed to have kidney problems, which is responsible for cardiovascular disease and millions of premature deaths.
Today about 2 million people suffer from end-stage renal disease, requiring a transplant or dialysis, but only a fraction of these get the lifesaving treatment they need. The U.S. is one of the 5 countries where 80 percent of kidney disease sufferers receive treatment; the others are Japan, Germany, Italy, and Brazil.
How to reduce the risk of kidney disease
There are steps everyone can take in terms of general lifestyle to reduce the risk of kidney disease:
- quit smoking
- keep off excess weight and avoid processed foods, especially those high in sodium, nitrates, and phosphates (which have been linked to kidney disease as well as cancer and heart disease)
- exercise regularly—at least 30 minutes a day, to help to keep your blood pressure and blood sugars low
- avoid over-use of pain medications such as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), given that these can harm the kidneys. Follow the recommended dosage closely if you do use them on occasion.
- maintain healthy blood sugar levels and good blood pressure—and confirm this with regular visits to your doctor. If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, have kidney disease in your family, or are over 60, then get an ACR urine test and a GFR blood test every year. You can even receive these screenings for free in your area.
We hope this introduction to kidneys and kidney disease has been helpful, and will equip you with some basic information in your life and work. If you’ve been inspired to learn more, visit the National Kidney Foundation. National Kidney Month is a great opportunity to learn more about taking excellent care of ourselves and our patients. So here’s to the kidneys!
This article is part of the Harris Casel Institute’s weekly blog. We offer many career training programs at our campus in Melbourne, FL. Contact us online for more information, or call (321)-676-4066 to speak with a representative of our Admission Department, who can answer any questions you might have.