Questions on Kidney Health: Ask 'The Spry Guy'

Unfortunately, it's only when kidneys aren't working properly that most people start to pay attention to these twins. I'm hoping to change that trend. Have you fallen prey to a kidney myth?
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Overlooked, overworked and misunderstood. Your wife? No, actually, it's your kidneys we're talking about. They're on call 24/7 yet, most people don't know where they are located, let alone what they do or the warning signs and risk factors for kidney disease.

As a practicing nephrologist (kidney specialist) and National Kidney Foundation spokesperson, I want to set the record straight. Here's my spin on Kidney 101 -- some basics that everyone should know about their hardworking kidneys and some common kidney-related myths and misconceptions that I hear all the time and want to dispel.

The Kidney Backstory (Pun Intended)
You are born with two kidneys. Kidneys start life behind the bladder in the unborn fetus and then "grow" up your back to their final position just below the rib cage. Kidneys reach maximum function around age 10, and ultimately weigh about five ounces each. Despite their small size, they cleanse the body's entire volume of blood many times per day. While cleaning the blood of wastes and toxins, the kidneys simultaneously regulate the body's fluid levels, and keep blood minerals such as sodium, phosphorus and potassium in balance. Healthy kidneys also activate vitamin D to maintain healthy bones and release hormones that direct production of red blood cells and regulate blood pressure.

Anyone can get chronic kidney disease at any age. However, some people are more likely than others to develop kidney disease. If you have personal history of high blood pressure or diabetes or a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure or kidney disease, you're at increased risk for developing chronic kidney disease (CKD).

Unfortunately, it's only when kidneys aren't working properly that most people start to pay attention to these twins. I'm hoping to change that trend. Have you fallen prey to a kidney myth?

Myth 1: I don't have any trouble passing my urine so my kidneys must be fine.
Damaged kidneys will continue to make urine even if they no longer properly clean your blood. People whose kidneys have failed still make urine most every day. When it comes to your urine, the presence of protein indicates whether your kidneys are damaged. When healthy kidneys filter the blood, the kidneys remove the waste products while leaving alone the blood products that the body can re-use. When the kidneys are damaged, some proteins are small enough to "leak" into the discard pile instead, resulting in protein in the urine. Testing for protein in the urine is as quick and easy as peeing in a cup. Next time you're at the doctor, make sure you get checked.

Myth 2: I have no symptoms, so I don't need to worry about my kidneys.
Most people with early chronic kidney disease (CKD) have no physical or apparent symptoms, which is why early testing is critical. The only way you can tell if you have kidney disease is to have blood, blood pressure and urine testing done -- three simple tests that your doctor or health care professional can perform to detect and diagnose kidney disease. You are your own best advocate. Speak up and ask for these tests next time you visit the doctor. The National Kidney Foundation also offers free kidney health screenings year-round in communities across the country.

Myth 3: If I've had kidney stones, that must mean that I have kidney disease.
A kidney stone is a hard object that is made from chemicals in the urine. Urine has various wastes dissolved in it. When there is too much waste in too little liquid, crystals begin to form. Having kidney stones increases the risk of developing chronic kidney disease, but having kidney stones is not the same as having kidney disease. If you have had one stone, you are at increased risk of having another stone because those who have developed one stone are at approximately 50 percent risk for developing another within five to seven years. Kidney stones have many causes, most of them are genetic in nature, but some of them have to do with diet. To prevent kidney stones, you must drink enough water every day. Your chances of developing kidney stones are much greater when there is too much salt in your body, and I would really encourage you to follow a low-salt diet.

Myth 4: Kidney disease can't be prevented.
Diabetes and high blood pressure are the two leading causes of chronic kidney disease. If you have diabetes and/or high blood pressure, you can prevent kidney complications by regularly monitoring your blood pressure and blood sugar. To promote kidney health, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight and body mass index (BMI), follow a low-salt diet, don't smoke, drink in moderation and try to avoid non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Knowledge is power -- get an annual physical to find out your health values and work to improve upon them.

Myth 5: You can have a mild kidney problem.
There's no such thing as "mild kidney failure" or a "mild kidney problem." Just like you can't get a little bit pregnant, if your kidneys are failing, they're failing. Period. And this is quite serious. If detected in its early stages, chronic kidney disease can be managed and its progression can be slowed. This is why it is so important to know your risk factors and get checked on a regular basis. For more information of the different types of tests performed to assess kidney function, click here. In the medical world, there is a term called "acute kidney failure," which describes a condition when the kidneys rapidly stop doing their job. While the causes of acute kidney failure are varied, in acute kidney failure, the kidneys are more likely to resume functioning once the root cause has been treated, whereas in chronic kidney failure, dialysis or transplantation are the standard treatment options.

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For more by Leslie Spry, M.D., FACP, click here.

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