Chronic kidney disease (CKD) refers to a form of progressive kidney disease in which your kidneys gradually decline in function. It is a condition that the Kidney Foundation estimates to affect at least 26 million adults in the United States. Many are in the early stages of CKD and do not know it. This disease is different from acute kidney failure, or the rapid onset of kidney malfunction. CKD is a chronic (long-term), progressive condition that can have dire consequences.
Excess waste and fluids will accumulate in your body if the kidneys aren’t working properly. This can also lead to other health complications. CKD is usually not curable, but the damage to your kidney can be slowed if caught early.
It’s important to diagnose CKD early, before too much tissue damage has occurred. Unfortunately, there are few warning signs of kidney disease within the early stages of CKD.
Once CKD has progressed, more symptoms may become apparent. These include:
- increased blood pressure
- excessive fatigue
- sleeping troubles
- feet or ankle swelling (which later progresses upward)
- forgetfulness and trouble concentrating
- nausea or vomiting
- decreased appetite and unintentional weight loss
- muscle twitching or cramps
- itching of the skin
The problem with many of these symptoms is that they can also be related to other health conditions — this is why many people overlook them. It is important to address any unusual symptoms with your doctor, especially if you have any common risk factors for kidney disease.
As CKD progresses, you might experience chest pain and shortness of breath. You may also urinate more frequently. Call your doctor right away if you notice blood in your urine, or if it’s painful to void.
CKD typically develops over a period of months, or even years. It is most often linked to other underlying health conditions that can affect the kidneys. In fact, according to the Kidney Foundation, about two-thirds of all cases are caused by high blood pressure (hypertension) or diabetes.
Hypertension is one of the most common cardiovascular-related conditions that primarily occur in middle-aged adults. You will be more likely to develop this condition if you:
- are in poor physical shape
- have a family history of hypertension
- are an older adult
Uncontrolled hypertension is a common cause of CKD. If you have hypertension, it’s very important that you manage it properly.
Diabetes can cause CKD by damaging the kidneys, and decreasing their function.
Other possible causes of CKD include:
- heart disease
- multiple infections of the kidneys
- backing up of urine into the kidneys (vesicoureteral reflux)
- high cholesterol
- polycystic kidney disease
- kidney filter inflammation (glomerulonephritis)
- alcohol use
- drug abuse
- overuse of OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen
Complications of CKD may include:
- hypertension (this is also a cause of CKD)
- coronary artery disease
- fluid retention
- decreased immune system/increased risk for infections
- electrolyte (sodium, potassium) imbalances
CKD can also lead to end-stage kidney failure. At this point, kidney disease is life-threatening without a transplant or dialysis.
When to See a Doctor
CKD can cause serious organ damage, so it’s important to see your doctor if you notice any unusual symptoms. If you already have diabetes, hypertension, or another condition that can cause CKD, your doctor should already be monitoring your vitals on a regular basis as a preventive measure.
The best way to prevent kidney disease is to reduce your risk factors. A healthy weight, physical activity, and a low-fat diet can decrease lifestyle-associated causes of CKD. If you have uncontrollable risk factors, such as family history or type 1 diabetes, then you can help prevent CKD by seeing your doctor for regular monitoring.
Reducing the amount of salt you eat can also make a difference. Avoid adding salt to your food, and check food labels carefully for sodium content. Refraining from alcohol and quitting smoking can also decrease your risk for CKD.
The progression of CKD may be slowed down, but the disease itself is generally not curable. Getting a kidney transplant is often the last resort because these organs are not readily available for all candidates.
With CKD, your best plan of action is to monitor your condition carefully while following your doctor’s instructions for a healthier lifestyle. Be sure to call a physician right away if you notice any sudden changes in symptoms.