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Understanding Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is the gradual loss of the kidneys' ability to filter waste from the blood. It’s often a result of a kidney disease. But did you know CKD could also be a result of other diseases and illnesses? Diabetes and high blood pressure are the leading causes of CKD. Because CKD usually occurs over time, you may not have any symptoms until it's time to start dialysis.

What is CKD?

CKD is the slow break down of the kidneys' ability to filter waste and fluid from the bloodstream.

Kidneys are made up of nephrons, tiny structures that filter waste out of the blood. When a person is diagnosed with a kidney disease or another disease that affects the kidneys (such as diabetes or high blood pressure), the nephrons will become damaged over time and lose their filtering ability.

Kidneys can become scarred or even shrink in size.

What causes CKD?

If you’ve been diagnosed with CKD, that didn't happen suddenly. And, CKD will not get better. There are two common diseases that can lead to CKD: diabetes and high blood pressure.

Diabetes is a disease where the body isn’t producing enough insulin to break down the sugar from the food we eat. The excess sugar (also known as glucose) remains in the bloodstream. High levels of glucose can damage the nephrons in your kidneys. This could lead to a condition called diabetic nephropathy.

Over time, high blood pressure damages blood vessels throughout the body. The high pressure and stress from the blood vessels in the kidneys can damage the nephrons.

What are the symptoms of CKD?

CKD is a slow process. Because CKD occurs over a long period of time (often years), you may not notice any symptoms until there is a significant loss of kidney function. This is why CKD is a silent, but devastating disease.

Because your kidneys will be unable to filter fluid and waste from your blood efficiently, you will have a buildup of toxins in your blood stream.

When patients finally feel the effects of their damaged kidneys, they will experience an overall ill feeling. You may feel tired, have frequent hiccups and feel nauseated. You may vomit, your skin may itch and you may have headaches.

Can I be tested for CKD?

Your doctor can order a urine and blood sample for analysis. Your doctor would look for creatinine and urea nitrogen in your blood. Both are waste products produced by the body. If your blood test indicates either of these two waste products are high, this may be a sign your kidneys aren’t doing their job.

Your doctor may also test to see if your erythropoietin levels are normal by ordering a hemoglobin or hematocrit test. Your doctor may order an MRI or an ultrasound to see if your kidneys have shrunk in size.

If the cause for CKD isn’t clear, your doctor may decide to do a kidney biopsy. This is done under local anesthesia.

How is CKD treated?

CKD is treated by taking care of the underlying cause of the disease. This may slow the disease's progression. If you’ve been diagnosed with a kidney disease, high blood pressure or diabetes, your doctor may have you on medication to help control your illness. Your dietitian may have also placed you on a special diet that restricts sugar, sodium (salt), protein, phosphorus and potassium.

As CKD progresses to the point where you have less than 15 percent of your kidney function, dialysis or a kidney transplant will be needed.

What can I do to prevent CKD?

It’s important to have any illness diagnosed in its early stages. If you’ve been diagnosed with CKD, the condition is irreversible. However, you may be able to slow the progress of the disease through a proper diet, medication (if needed) and exercise.

Ask your doctor to monitor your glucose levels and blood pressure. An early diagnosis of diabetes or hypertension can lead to appropriate treatment before any harm is done to the kidneys. If you’ve already been diagnosed with diabetes or high blood pressure, follow your doctor's instructions regarding medication, diet and exercise. Keeping your blood sugar level and blood pressure low is important to prevent more damage not only to your kidneys, but your entire body.

If you would like to see a doctor who specializes in the care of kidneys, called a nephrologist, you can use DaVita's Find a Kidney Doctor tool to locate a nephrologist in your area.