Kidneys are vital for your body. Well-functioning kidneys remove waste and excess fluids from your blood, keep important minerals in balance, and help regulate blood pressure, produce red blood cells and vitamin D. In other words, your kidneys make sure your body stays healthy and balanced.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a condition in which your kidneys gradually lose their ability to help your body remove waste and fluid from your blood. When this happens, harmful wastes and fluids begin to build up in your body, making you feel unwell and out of balance. Although chronic kidney disease (CKD) is not curable, treatment can help slow its progression, control symptoms and enable you to live a full life.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) affects both of your kidneys at the same time. While your body gives you two kidneys to help filter waste, one is not a “back-up” for the other. They work in unison to cleanse your body. When you are diagnosed with chronic kidney disease (CKD), it means that both of your kidneys are affected and cannot properly filter waste and fluid from your body.
What Symptoms Will I Experience?
As all bodies are unique, symptoms may vary from person to person. You may not notice symptoms until your chronic kidney disease (CKD) is quite advanced. That is why kidney disease is sometimes referred to as a “silent” condition.
Even though symptoms vary by individual, some are more common than others. One or more of the following symptoms may mean your kidneys are no longer working properly:
- You may feel weaker or more tired than usual
- Your hands or your feet may swell
- You may experience unexpected shortness of breath
- You may not have a big appetite, potentially causing you to lose weight
- You may have an unpleasant taste in your mouth
- You may feel nauseated or need to vomit
- You may not be able to sleep as well as usual
- Your skin may itch unexpectedly
- Your muscles may hurt or cramp
- Your skin might appear darker than normal
If you’re experiencing one or more of these symptoms, you should talk to your clinician.
What Causes Chronic Kidney Disease?
In most cases, chronic kidney disease (CKD) is the result of other conditions that have permanently impacted your kidneys over time. For example, diabetes and high blood pressure are the two leading causes of chronic kidney disease (CKD). Other potential causes include polycystic kidney disease and other chronic conditions.
There are a variety of conditions that can cause chronic kidney disease (CKD). These include the following:
Diabetes prevents your body from making or using insulin, the hormone that allows it to turn the sugar you eat into energy. When your system does not use insulin right away, too much sugar stays in your blood, which over time can cause chronic kidney disease (CKD).
- High blood pressure
If you have high blood pressure, it means your heart is working too hard to pump your blood through your blood vessels. The tiny blood vessels in your kidneys can become damaged as a result. This can potentially cause chronic kidney disease (CKD).
Lupus nephritis, an immune system disorder, causes swelling or scarring of the small blood vessels that filter waste in your kidneys, and sometimes even the kidneys themselves, by attacking them the way they would attack a disease.
- Polycystic kidney disease
Polycystic kidney disease is an inherited disorder that causes fluid-filled cysts to form in the kidneys, which may impair kidney function and eventually cause chronic kidney disease (CKD).
Glomerulonephritis is a type of kidney disease in which the tiny filters inside your kidneys (glomeruli) are damaged and cannot remove waste and fluid the way they should. This can ultimately cause chronic kidney disease (CKD).
- Injury or trauma
Injury or trauma to your kidneys can cause a sudden loss of kidney function, leading to acute kidney failure.
When your kidneys become damaged as a result of these or other conditions, they may lose their ability to filter waste and fluids from your blood. However, the right treatment and living a healthy lifestyle may improve your quality of life.
Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) Stages
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) has 5 different stages, ranging from stage 1 to stage 5. What stage you are in depends on how well your kidneys are currently able to filter your blood.
Your clinician will determine which stage of chronic kidney disease (CKD) you are in by calculating your glomerular filtration rate (GFR), which indicates how well your kidneys are able to filter your blood.
Your glomerular filtration rate (GFR) will be calculated using a combination of inputs. These include your age, gender and race, as well as your blood’s level of creatinine – a waste product. If your glomerular filtration rate (GFR) number is low, your kidneys are not working as well as they should be. Below you can see the 5 stages of chronic kidney disease (CKD) and their associated glomerular filtration rates (GFRs).
Stages of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
Stage 1 of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
Description: your kidneys are damaged, but are almost able to function normally
GFR above 90
What this means: You will probably not notice symptoms of chronic kidney disease (CKD) and can live a normal life but will have regular clinician visits to monitor your GFR and manage any other health issues that may affect your kidney functioning.
Stage 2 of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
Description: damage has caused a mild loss of your kidney function
What this means: Like in stage 1, you will likely not notice symptoms of chronic kidney disease (CKD), but will need to regularly visit your clinician in order to have your GFR monitored and manage any health problems that may affect your kidney functioning.
Stage 3 of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
Description: damage has caused a moderate loss of your kidney function
What this means: You may still not notice symptoms of chronic kidney disease (CKD). You will need your clinician to test regularly for complications and should discuss treatment options with them to prepare for the case that kidney failure develops.
Stage 4 of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
Description: damage has caused a severe loss of your kidney function
What this means: You may notice symptoms of chronic kidney disease (CKD). You should either be in treatment for your chronic kidney disease (CKD) or have discussed treatment options with you clinician to prepare for the event that kidney failure develops.
Stage 5 of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
Description: your kidneys have failed
GFR less than 15
What this means: You will likely notice symptoms of chronic kidney disease (CKD). You will need to move forward with the treatment that you and your clinician have decided is right for you.
Remember that every chronic kidney disease (CKD) patient is unique. Not only your glomerular filtration rate (GFR), but also your age, physical condition, medical history and lifestyle will factor into your clinician’s treatment recommendation. The treatment choice should always be a joint decision between you and your clinician.
Coping with the Emotional Aspects of Your Diagnosis
Getting diagnosed with a chronic disease is a life changing event. It is normal for you to experience a series of complicated emotions upon receiving this kind of news. Initially, you may feel shocked by unexpected test results or sad and fearful about the idea of living with a chronic illness. The way you cope with these emotions can significantly affect your physical and mental health throughout your treatment journey.
Treating and managing chronic kidney disease (CKD) comes with a variety of emotional challenges. It is important to allow yourself to feel them without judgment, recognize them as a normal part of life with a chronic illness, and look for opportunities to channel them into positive changes in your mindset and lifestyle.
You may feel some, or all, of the following:
Remember that you are not alone – your clinician and healthcare team can connect you with the resources you need to manage your emotions in a healthy way. To get the most out of this support network, you may need to take the lead – asking questions, reporting symptoms and educating yourself about chronic kidney disease (CKD).
Caregivers and family members may also play an important role in providing emotional support while you’re being treated. If you share your feelings with them, they may be able to provide a new perspective or guide you towards a more positive outlook. However, they may also have questions themselves - that's why we’ve also included a section specifically for caregivers and family members.
Understand the basics of chronic kidney disease
Learning what chronic kidney disease is and how it affects your body can seem like a big challenge. Therefore, we have summarized the most important things you need to know in a simple chart. Download and print it or share it with your family or caregiver.Download
Getting to know a new language
Being diagnosed with chronic kidney disease and starting on dialysis probably mean that you will face a lot of words and items you have never encountered before. To help you learn the most essential terminology, we have created a small dictionary. Download and print it out, so you can start to familiarize yourself with some of the words you need to learn.Download
Explore your Options for Treating Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
There are a variety of treatment options available for chronic kidney disease (CKD) and it is important that you take an active role in identifying the one that suits you best. The next step in your journey is to prepare yourself to have an informed discussion with your clinician about which treatment is best suited to your physical, emotional and lifestyle needs.