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March 19, 2019

What you need to know about your kidneys – and how to keep them healthy

Brush up on these underappreciated organs for National Kidney Month

Prevention Kidneys
kidney health Source/Image licensed by Ingram Image

The kidneys, glowing yellow, in an x-ray of the anatomy of the human body.

Most people don't give a second thought about their kidneys until they have issues with them, but they're crucial to a person’s good health.

Since March is National Kidney Month, which raises awareness about this pair of underappreciated organs, PhillyVoice talked to some local experts about how to keep them in good working order – and what it means when they are not.

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But let’s talk first about what the kidneys are, where they’re located and what they do.


Located near the middle of your back, just below the rib cage, the kidneys are bean-shaped organs that process about 200 quarts of blood every day to remove about two quarts of waste products and extra water, which are then passed in urine, according to WebMD

Other crucial functions performed by the fist-sized kidneys include maintaining overall fluid balance; regulating and filtering minerals from blood; and creating hormones that help produce red blood cells, promote bone health and regulate blood pressure.


The kidneys are susceptible to various problems, including chronic kidney disease, kidney failure, kidney stones, glomerulonephritis, acute nephritis, and more, according to Healthline. (View the full list of conditions affecting kidneys here.) 

Common symptoms of a kidney problem include trouble sleeping, fatigue, inability to concentrate, dry and itchy skin, increase (or decreased) urination, blood in urine, foamy urine, puffiness around the eyes, foot or ankle swelling, reduced appetite and muscle cramps, according to Healthline. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your doctor — they can perform tests to make a diagnosis. 

Chronic kidney disease includes conditions that damage your kidneys and decrease their ability to keep you healthy by doing their many functions. According to the National Kidney Foundation, it’s a fairly common disease — 30 million American adults have it and millions of others are at increased risk.

If kidney disease worsens, waste can build up in the blood and make you feel sick. You may develop complications like high blood pressure, anemia (low blood count), weak bones, poor nutritional health and nerve damage, according to the National Kidney Foundation. These problems may happen slowly over a long period of time.

Chronic kidney disease may be caused by diabetes, high blood pressure and other disorders, but early detection can help prevent progression to kidney failure. It also increases the risk of heart and blood vessel disease.


kidney health Dr. Maarouf Omar Hussein
When some of these kidney-related diseases worsen — they often don’t show symptoms until late stages — the patient’s kidney dysfunction will approach a point where they need to start preparing for renal replacement therapy (RRT) like hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis, said Dr. Omar Maarouf, a nephrologist and assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals.

“We usually measure kidney function by creatinine and eGFR (estimated glomerular filtration rate). It is common practice to refer a patient to kidney transplant clinic when eGFR is less than 20 ml/min,” Maarouf explained.

At this point, Maarouf explained, patients will likely have a living donor in place — commonly a spouse, parent or child — ready to donate a kidney. If this is the case, the patient will likely be able to receive a kidney transplant without having to go on hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis. “This is the outcome that we prefer for better overall survival,” he said.


kidney health Dr. Crystal Gadegbeku
Dr. Crystal Gadegbeku, chief of nephrology at Temple University Hospital, noted that not every patient is fortunate enough to have a living donor to aid in their transplant. In such cases, the patient is placed on a transplant list and may have to wait five or more years for a donor. The scarcity of donated organs is prompting much research to develop alternatives, Gadegbeku explained.


Experts agree that the best way to keep your kidneys healthy is to keep your whole self healthy. 

Maarouf suggested exercising and eating healthy, staying hydrated, avoiding excess salt and sugar and maintaining a healthy BMI, or body mass index. He also suggested minimizing use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or PPI (proton-pump-inhibitor) unless you really need them or they are prescribed by a physician. Controlling present conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and heart failure is also important for kidney health, Maarouf explained.

Gadegbeku recommended keeping up with regular health checks, especially if there are risk factors like family history or membership in a high-risk community like African-Americans, Hispanics or Native Americans. She suggested requesting a blood or urine test if you have concerns surrounding the health of your kidneys.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, smoking is the strongest modifiable risk factor for both kidney and heart disease. There is nothing more important that smokers can do than quitting the habit. Smoking causes hardening of the arteries which causes both coronary artery disease and nephrosclerosis, or hardening of the kidneys due to disease of the blood vessels in it. And it's a risk factor for high blood pressure, a contributing factor in both heart and kidney disease. 


If you are a kidney patient, or are the family or caretaker of a kidney patient, the National Kidney Foundation has many resources you can check out here.

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