Your kidneys are the two bean-shaped organs located in your lower back where your love handles are, and I'm sure that you know that your kidneys are responsible for filtering out excess fluid from your blood and making urine. But did you know that if both of your kidneys fail, then you cannot live unless you have some form of kidney replacement therapy like dialysis or transplant? Here's the thing, if you're able to recognize the early warning signs of kidney problems, in many cases, you don't have to progress to that point. You may never have to progress to needing dialysis or needing a kidney transplant. Over 37 million Americans have kidney disease and many don't even know it. One in three is at risk. So let me ask you this, if you could potentially prevent kidney failure or slow down the progression of having kidney problems, wouldn't you want to do it? Well, guess what? I'm a Board-certified kidney specialist, and today, I'm giving you seven early warning signs and symptoms of kidney problems and what to do about it.
Function of Kidneys
I'm Dr. Frita, and I'm a Board-certified nephrologist, which means I'm an MD who specializes in kidney disease and high blood pressure. The kidneys are such vital organs, yet I feel like they don't get enough attention. Your kidneys are the two bean-shaped organs located in your lower back and each kidney is about nine to 11 centimeters in most people. You have a million nephrons in each kidney, which means you have a million little units responsible for filtering out your blood and cleaning your blood in each kidney, and both kidneys are really powerhouse organs. In addition to your kidneys making urine, filtering out the blood, and getting rid of excess fluid, they do so many other things. They help to balance your electrolytes like your sodium, and your potassium. They help to regulate your blood pressure. They even help to keep you from being anemic and they're important for bone health and for vitamin D, and the list goes on and on.
The important thing to know is that if you don't recognize early warning signs and symptoms of kidney problems, then you can progress to kidney failure where you actually need dialysis or you need a transplant if you're going to live. And so today, I want to talk about how to recognize these warning signs and what to do about it.
What Is The First Sign of Kidney Problems or Kidney Failure?
The most common early-warning symptom of kidney failure is nothing. That's right, I have so many people who come into my office and they say, "Hey, you know, my doctor says I have some kidney problems, but I make a lot of urine. I have energy, I feel fine, I look fine," and that's true. That's why it's so important that you see your physician regularly because when you get your routine history and physical, that routine blood work will check your BUN (Blood Urea Nitrogen), and your creatinine and it can pick up warning signs of kidney disease before you ever have any kind of symptom. And remember, signs are what you see, and symptoms are what you feel. A warning sign can be picked up by your doctor even before you ever feel anything.
7 Early Warning Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Problems
1. Swelling or Edema of the Hands and Feet
Your kidneys are responsible for helping to balance your electrolytes, including sodium. If your kidneys aren't working well or if you have kidney problems, then you may be holding on to too much sodium, which will cause you to hold onto fluid and you get a swelling in your tissues called edema. If you're getting swelling in your hands, swelling in your feet, ankles, or your legs, and if you're noticing that when you put on socks, they're leaving indentations or your shoes are getting tighter, this definitely could be an early warning sign of kidney problems.
Another issue is that if your kidneys are actually leaking out protein, you can get swelling in your whole body. You can get swelling under your eyes or around your eyes (Periorbital edema). You can also get diffuse edema or swelling everywhere and you can have something called nephrotic syndrome.
2. Change in Urination
Many people think that if they're making a lot of urine, they couldn't possibly have issues with their kidneys. Well, that's actually not true at all because one of the early warning signs of kidney problems could actually be making a lot of urine. This is why your kidneys are responsible for concentrating the urine that you make as it leaves your body or as you excrete it. And if you're having issues with your kidneys, you could have difficulty concentrating your urine, which can make you have very dilute urine and actually, make you have polyuria or urinate a lot. You can even be getting up and using the restroom at night or having Nocturia, and that could actually be a symptom of kidney problems. Also, if you're urinating frequently or having a urinary frequency, that could be a warning sign. Another sign could be a large prostate, BPH, which could cause you to have a urine urgency, meaning you "gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now". You get to the restroom, you don't really have to go.
Or you can have urinary hesitancy where you're kind of dribbling or trickling out urine, but then you still feel full. All of this could be an early sign of problems with your kidneys. And certainly, as you get advanced kidney disease, you may actually have a decreased amount of urine or oliguria. So yes, a change in urination, whether it's urinating more frequently, making a lot of urine, or making a little urine. A change could be an early symptom of kidney difficulties.
A lot of people think that when their skin is itching, they may have an allergy or they need to change their lotion or their soaps. That could be true, absolutely, but what is also true is that skin itching and even rashes can be an early symptom of kidney troubles. So your kidneys are responsible for filtering out phosphorus and phosphorus is something that is found in a lot of foods. It is found naturally, but it's also found in a lot of processed foods.
And when your kidneys aren't working properly, if you have kidney disease, then you're not urinating out that phosphorus like you should. What happens? It builds up in your blood, you get hyperphosphatemia, or hypophosphorous in the blood and it can cause itching, an intense itching all over your body. You can also get certain rashes and, yes, there are numerous reasons for getting rashes, but just remember if you have kidney disease, it can also be related to dry skin and rashes.
Fatigue or having low energy is really one of the trickiest symptoms and warning signs because so many different disease processes can cause you to be fatigued or just very, very tired. But don't forget that having kidney issues is one of them and for many reasons.
One, your kidneys are responsible for making something called erythropoietin, which stimulates your bone marrow to make more red blood cells. Basically, your kidneys functioning properly are important to keep you from being anemic. Well, if you have kidney disease and you're not making that erythropoietin, then you can become anemic or have low blood, which can lead to low energy and cause fatigue.
Also, your kidneys are responsible for getting rid of excess toxins in your blood. So if your kidneys aren't working well, you can excess Blood Urea Nitrogen (BUN), or creatinine, and you can have other toxins that build up in your blood and they can cause you to have very low energy.
5. Shortness of Breath
When we talk about shortness of breath, many people go straight to the lungs. They're like, "Ah, do you have asthma? Do you have emphysema or bronchitis?" Certainly, those can all cause shortness of breath, but having kidney disease or kidney problems can cause shortness of breath as well for a couple of reasons.
One, if you are holding onto fluid and your kidneys stop working well and you're not making enough urine, a backup of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) can cause shortness of breath. Also, if you are leaking out protein in the urine and you have nephrotic syndrome or nephritic syndrome or some syndrome that's causing you to leak out protein that will cause you to hold on to fluid. You can get fluid in your lungs that can lead to shortness of breath.
In addition to that, being anemic from kidney problems can lead to shortness of breath. Again, your kidneys are responsible for keeping you from being anemic or having low blood. If you're anemic, that's an issue because your red blood cells are like little donut-shaped cars that carry oxygen to your cells. If you are anemic, then you're not getting enough oxygen. And so, when you try to exert yourself, then you may become short of breath. So the next time you feel short of breath, instead of automatically assuming it's a lung problem, remember, that shortness of breath can be a symptom that your kidneys aren't working well.
6. Low Back Pain
Now here's the interesting thing. Most of the time, chronic kidney disease does not cause low back pain. But there are cases when low back pain can be a sign of problems with the kidneys. For example, if you have a urinary tract infection that has progressed to where you actually have a kidney infection or pyelonephritis, that can certainly cause you to have a low back pain and that's a kidney problem. And also, if you have kidney stones, oh, my gosh, kidney stones can cause lower back pain that will make my biggest, roughest, toughest patients fall down to their knees and cry. Yes, low back pain can be caused by kidney stones, which is certainly a kidney problem that you don't want to deal with.
It is important to remember that even though it is possible for low back pain to be a warning symptom of kidney problems, most of the time, you don't get low back pain just because your kidneys aren't functioning well. So it is going to be very important that you follow up with your primary care physician and get screened before even waiting for a symptom like low back pain.
7. Urinary Tract Infections
I get so many patients in my office who have recurrent or repeated urinary tract infections, and this could actually be a warning that there's a kidney problem. You can get a bladder infection or cystitis, which is a common urinary tract infection. And what happens most often is that bacteria or some other pathogen like fungus or even a virus, but usually, bacteria crawl up the urine tube or the urethra into the bladder.
Urinary Tract Infections In Women
Now with women, because the urethra is short (the distance between the bladder and the outside world is short), women tend to get this cystitis or urinary tract infections more frequently than men because the distance between the bladder and the outside world has to go all the way through the male organ. It's harder for bacteria to crawl and make it all the way up to the bladder before a man urinates and gets rid of them. So if you get recurrent urinary tract infections, specifically, recurrent kidney infections or pyelonephritis, this could certainly lead to kidney disease. But the recurrent urinary tract infections could also be a warning that there's something else going on with the kidney, for example, you could have blockage.
Urinary Tract Infections In Men
If you are a man and you're constantly getting urinary tract infections, that's not really 'of the norm'. And so you want to make sure that you talk with your doctor about perhaps doing a kidney ultrasound or some imaging of the kidneys to make sure you don't have a big prostate that's causing a backup of urine, which is leading to your recurrent urinary tract infections.
Recurrent Urinary Tract Infections In Men and Women
Also for both men and women, if you're getting recurrent urinary tract infections, that can mean you have some type of a blockage, tightening, or a stricture somewhere in your kidney system. And the genital urinary tract, for example, if you have a narrowing in that urethra, that tube in the bladder to the outside world, that could be something that leads to repeated urinary tract infections. So, yes, having urinary tract infections could be a warning that you have a problem with your kidneys and you definitely want to do something about it.
These are some of the most common early warning signs and symptoms of kidney problems. The list certainly is longer than that. Were there any warning signs and symptoms that I mentioned that you were not previously aware of? Please let me know in the comments below. There are many different causes of kidney disease, but it is key to recognize these warning signs and symptoms so that you can act early and prevent a progression to kidney failure.
The number one cause of kidney disease is diabetes. The number two cause of kidney disease is high blood pressure in the United States, but there are other things as well, things that aren't such common knowledge.
For example, certain medications can cause kidney disease. Also, if you get an overwhelming infection or a septic shock, that can lead to kidney disease. Dehydration, and not drinking enough water can lead to kidney disease. And then there are different genetic diseases, things you're born with like autosomal-dominant polycystic kidney disease or IgA nephropathy or Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSG), and the list goes on and on.
The key to kidney disease prevention is seeing your doctor. Remember, the most common early symptom of kidney failure is nothing. It's nothing, but when you go to your doctor and you get your routine history and physical, we do routine testing and we can check your kidneys to make sure that you're not having kidney problems. If you have kidney disease, or if you have a family history of kidney disease, then your physicians can really guide you to prevent progression to kidney failure. I want you to be proactive and to take charge of your health.
If you have more questions or if you want to actually have your own personal history and physical review and you want to talk to me about kidney disease, I now am providing a concierge service where you can have a one-on-one consultation with me and I will give you that undivided attention and give you my expert opinion on your kidney health.
Be sure to click here to learn more, or schedule a one-on-one concierge appointment with me. I want you to tell me which of the warning signs and symptoms of kidney problems stood out to you most and why. Comment down below.
- 17 Easy Ways To Lower Blood Pressure with Simple Diet and Lifestyle Changes - February 4, 2024
- Capitol Hill Briefing on Kidney Disease Health Equity | Dr. Frita McRae Fisher Speaks - January 31, 2024
- 10 Chronic Kidney Disease Symptoms You Should Refuse To Ignore! - January 24, 2024