More than 90,000 people are on the kidney waiting list in the United States. Living donors supply about a third of all donated kidneys.

This lifesaving choice can be made on behalf of a known person, such as a family member, or a stranger. Either way, kidney donation should be fully thought out and understood. This is known as informed consent.

In this article, we’ll explain what you can expect in the days, months, and years after donating a kidney.

The surgical procedure used to extract a healthy kidney from a living donor is called donor nephrectomy.

After surgery, healthcare professionals will monitor you for several hours in a recovery room.

You can then expect a hospital stay of 1 to 2 days if you had laparoscopic surgery, or 4 to 5 days if you had open incision surgery.

Surgery types explained

Open incision surgery, involves a 5- to 7-inch incision (cut) on the side of the abdomen. The kidney is then removed through this opening. Division (cutting) of muscle and removal of the top end of the 12th rib is required.

Laparoscopic kidney removal surgery is newer and more commonly used. It’s less invasive and recovery time is faster.

During this procedure, two to four half-inch incisions are made on the side of the abdomen. A surgeon places a laparoscope with a camera on its tip in one of the incisions so they can view your kidney from the outside. The surgeon will use gas to inflate your abdomen, making kidney removal easier.

The surgeon uses laparoscopic instruments to detach the kidney. Once detached, the kidney is removed through a 3- to 4-inch incision in the lower abdomen. No muscle or rib detachment is needed.

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During surgery, a surgeon will insert a catheter so you can eliminate urine after surgery. The catheter will be left intact in the urethra for about a day and then removed. Removal is painless. In most cases, you can expect healthcare professionals to remove the catheter before you’re discharged from the hospital.

When can you start moving?

Once you’re ready, you’ll be assisted to walk and move around in the hospital. This usually happens the day after surgery. Movement helps restore your bowels to normal function.

When can you resume eating?

Fluids and nutrition will be given intravenously for a day or two. Once your intestines begin working normally, you will be able to eat and drink solid foods.

Risk prevention

To avoid a lung infection, hospital staff will guide you on deep breathing exercises. If needed, they will give you a spirometer during your hospital stay to support optimal breathing.

Pain management

You can expect to feel pain or discomfort after surgery. In some instances, it may be significant. Medication can help manage your pain in the hospital. Your doctor can also prescribe an oral medication to assist with pain relief, as needed, once you get home.

In addition to pain, other postsurgical symptoms include:

  • itching at the incision site
  • bloating
  • constipation

Follow-up care

It may take several weeks to feel like your normal self. Follow-up medical appointments will be needed during this time and afterward.

On average, you can expect to see your doctor 1 week after surgery with an additional follow-up 1 month later. Based on your age and overall health, follow-up appointments may be needed at the 6-month and 1-year marks, or longer.

The type of procedure you have will play a role in your recovery time. So will your age and overall health.

Before being approved as a donor, a doctor will take donor candidates through a thorough evaluation process. As part of this evaluation, they will evaluate risk factors. If your doctor thinks you’re at risk of more severe outcomes following the procedure, they will not recommend kidney donation.

If your kidney is removed with the open incision technique, you may need 6 to 8 weeks of rest at home following the surgery. Laparoscopic surgery requires less recovery time, typically around 2 to 3 weeks.

Eating a nutritious diet and drinking lots of water will support your recovery and overall health. Smoking and drinking alcohol will make recovery take longer. It’s recommended to avoid smoking and drinking for at least the first several weeks after surgery.

When you’re able, you can start to resume your usual activities. However, avoid lifting heavy objects for at least 6 weeks. Also avoid activities that might damage your remaining kidney. These include contact sports, such as football and karate.

Over time, your remaining kidney will get larger to compensate for the loss of the removed kidney. This allows kidney donors to live a normal life after donation. Exercise, sexual activity, and other day-to-day activities can be enjoyed after recovery.

It will remain important to protect your remaining kidney from injury. This may mean refraining from contact sports for life, even if you wear protective equipment.

Substances that might damage your kidney should also be eliminated or used sparsely. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Talk with your doctor about your personal habits, such as drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. They can provide additional recommendations specific to your lifestyle.

Make sure to maintain regular, annual follow-up care that includes blood and urine tests for kidney function.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, your life expectancy will not change after living donation.

The long-term risk of kidney (renal) failure is low. You can reduce your own risk of kidney failure by living a healthy lifestyle and protecting your one kidney.

If you do have kidney failure after donation, you’ll be given priority for a new kidney from a deceased donor through the National Kidney Registry’s Donor Shield program.

Living kidney donation has not been shown to be a direct risk factor for high blood pressure. However, some living donors may develop high blood pressure, especially if they have underlying issues such as older age or obesity. Being of African American or Hispanic descent may also increase the risk of high blood pressure in living donors.

Before donation, healthcare professionals will screen you for your emotional health. Your motivations for donating a kidney will be discussed.

Even so, you may feel a wide range of mixed emotions after donation. These may include fear, worry, anxiety about health, and more. Donation remorse is rare, but can also occur.

Whatever you feel is valid. No matter what your emotions are, be assured that other donors have felt the same thing. It’s just as important to take care of your mental health as your physical health.

If you’re having trouble coping, reach out to a therapist or the hospital’s transplant social worker to talk through your feelings.

Living kidney donors can donate to a relative, acquaintance, or stranger. The procedure for kidney donation includes extensive physical and mental health screenings.

If you’re approved to be a kidney donor, surgery will be scheduled. Recuperation and recovery can be lengthy, from a few weeks to several months. Full recovery can take longer in some instances.

Living kidney donors live full, normal lives, but they must take care to protect their one remaining kidney.