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Kidney Failure

(Renal Failure; Renal Insufficiency)


The kidneys take waste out the blood. They also help to balance important elements in the blood like water. When the kidneys do not work well enough to keep you healthy it is considered kidney failure.

Kidney failure may be:

Anatomy of the Kidney

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes    TOP

Kidney disease occurs when the tissue that filters the blood can no longer work properly. Damage to these filters may occur suddenly after an injury or poisoning. However, the damage will often occur over years or decades. Symptoms may not appear until the damage is more severe.

The two most common causes of kidney disease are:

  • Diabetes—high blood sugar can damage filters of kidneys
  • High blood pressure—severe high blood pressure can damage blood vessels in the kidneys

Other conditions that can cause kidney damage include:

Risk Factors    TOP

Factors that increase your chance of kidney failure include:

Symptoms    TOP

Some kidney diseases begin without any symptoms. As the damage to the kidneys gets worse, some of these symptoms may develop:

  • Swelling in your feet and ankles, puffiness around face
  • Itchy skin
  • Muscle cramps and twitches
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Loss of appetite, malnutrition
  • Increased urge to urinate
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • High blood pressure

More severe failure can cause:

Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Both blood and urine tests will help to show how your kidneys are working. A kidney biopsy may be done to test the kidney tissue.

Images may be taken of your kidneys and urinary tract. This may be done with:

Treatment    TOP

Often, damage from chronic kidney diseases cannot be fixed. Treatments may help to stop or slow further damage to the kidney and keep you as healthy as possible.

Treatment for acute kidney injury will focus on the illness or injury that caused the problem. Kidneys may recover and be able to function normally, with proper care.

General Measures

To help manage kidney changes your doctor may ask you to:

  • Limit the amount of fluids you take in
  • Eat a high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet
  • Being as active as possible

Daily weight checks may also be needed to track water retention. Sudden changes in weight may show a decrease in the kidneys abilities.


Medications may include:

  • Diuretics—to help the body move fluid and extra sodium out of the body
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Medications to treat low levels of red blood cells (anemia)
  • Sodium polystyrene sulfonate or insulin in dextrose to control high potassium levels
  • Medications to control high phosphorus levels

Talk to your doctor about any medications you are taking. These include prescribed and over-the-counter medications, as well as herbs and supplements. Changes in the kidney will affect how these medications or supplements can affect you. They may also do more damage to the kidneys.

Dialysis    TOP

Dialysis uses a machine to take over for your kidneys. A pump draws blood out into a machine. The machine filters waste out of the blood and returns cleaned blood to the body.

Dialysis may only be needed for a short time with acute injury. It may be stopped once the kidney has recovered and is able to work properly again. If the kidney was damaged and cannot work as needed, dialysis may need to be continued.

If chronic kidney failure has led to a severe decrease in how the kidney works, dialysis will be needed. It is often done several times a week for life or until a kidney transplant is done.

Kidney Transplant    TOP

A transplant may be an option for some. A healthy kidney from a donor will be placed near the current kidney. The new kidney should be able to successfully filter the blood and eliminate the need for dialysis. A successful transplant will depend on many factors, such as what is causing the kidney damage and your overall health.

Lifestyle Changes    TOP

Certain steps may help your kidneys stay healthier longer:

  • Have your blood pressure checked regularly. Take medication to control high blood pressure.
  • If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar. Ask your doctor for help.
  • Avoid the chronic use of pain medications.
  • Follow the doctor's dietary recommendations. This may include restricting protein, cholesterol, sodium, or potassium.

Prevention    TOP

In some cases, you cannot prevent kidney failure, but there are some steps you can take that will lower your risk:

  • Maintain normal blood pressure.
  • If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar.
  • Avoid long-term exposure to toxic substances, such as lead and solvents.
  • Do not abuse alcohol or over-the-counter pain medication.
  • If you have chronic kidney failure, talk to your doctor before you become pregnant.


National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
National Kidney Foundation


Canadian Diabetes Association
The Kidney Foundation of Canada


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Last reviewed January 2018 by Adrienne Carmack, MD
Last Updated: 2/5/2018

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