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March is National Kidney Month

March is National Kidney Month!

Don’t Ignore the “Silent Killer”

The kidneys are the body’s chemical factories, filtering waste and performing vital functions that control things like red blood cell production and blood pressure. But over time, your kidneys can become damaged with little or no physical symptoms to warn you there might be trouble.

Kidney disease is often referred to as the “silent killer” as it often presents no symptoms in its earliest, most treatable phase. Education, awareness, lifestyle choices, and knowing what can cause your kidneys to fail can make a significant difference in preventing kidney disease or slowing its progression.

“Of the 26 million American adults estimated to have kidney disease, most don’t know they have it. That’s why taking care of your kidneys, especially if you are at risk for kidney disease, is vital,” warns Joseph Vassalotti, MD, National Kidney Foundation Chief Medical Officer.

The CDC reports that more than eight million Americans have a major loss in kidney function. Of those, nearly 400,000 require dialysis or a kidney transplant to stay alive. The disease is increasing at an alarming rate: The number of kidney failure patients is expected to more than double at a projected cost of $28 billion. A significant portion of this increase is due to the growing number of people with undiagnosed or uncontrolled diabetes in the U.S.

Your Kidneys are Hard Workers

The kidneys are two, fist-sized organs found in your lower back. They maintain overall health by performing the following functions:

  • Filtering waste out of 200 liters of blood each day;
  • Regulating the body’s salt, potassium, and acid content;
  • Removing drugs from the body;
  • Balancing the body’s fluids;
  • Releasing hormones to regulate blood pressure;
  • Producing an active form of vitamin D to promote strong, healthy bones; and
  • Controlling production of red blood cells.

Kidney disease develops when kidneys lose the ability to remove waste and maintain fluid and chemical balances in the body. The severity of chronic kidney disease (CKD) depends on how well the kidneys filter wastes from the blood. It can progress quickly or take many years to develop. Those who develop end stage renal disease (ESRD) will need dialysis or a kidney transplant.


What Causes Kidney Disease?

High-risk populations include those with diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and a family history of kidney disease. Diabetes is the number one cause of kidney disease, with high blood pressure being the second leading cause according to the CDC: One in three with diabetes and one in five with high blood pressure have kidney disease.

No cure currently exists for kidney disease, but effective treatments can slow or prevent progression to kidney failure. Blood pressure control—and blood glucose control for people with diabetes—can prevent kidney disease or reduce further damage in those who already have kidney disease. The angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor class of blood pressure drugs is especially helpful in slowing kidney damage.

In addition, low protein diets seem to slow its progression. One of the challenges for people facing kidney disease is adhering to the dietary restriction of salt and protein, taking daily medication, and following up with their health care provider.

Symptoms of Kidney Disease

The signs of kidney disease can be similar to many other medical conditions. Some may experience a combination of these symptoms and assume they simply have a cold. Your kidneys are such hard workers that when a problem exists they will adjust and compensate for any loss of function—making it even harder for the average person to recognize a problem exists. According to the Mayo Clinic, these symptoms include:

  • Vomiting;
  • Nausea;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Fatigue and weakness;
  • Problems sleeping;
  • Changes in urine output ;
  • Muscle twitches and cramps;
  • Decreased mental sharpness;
  • Hiccups; and
  • Swelling of the feet and ankles;
  • Persistent itching;
  • High blood pressure.

Ignoring these symptoms is not an option. Kidney disease can lead to many complications, including cardiovascular disease, fluid retention, anemia, an increased risk of bone fractures, severe complications in pregnancy, and a decrease in the strength of your immune system which makes you more likely to contract infections.

Five Ways to Combat Kidney Disease

Get Tested

Ask your doctor for an ACR urine test or a GFR blood test annually if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, are over age 60, or have a family history of kidney failure. Get screened for free through the National Kidney Foundation’s KEEP Healthy program by visiting

Reduce NSAIDs

Over-the-counter pain medicines, such as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), may alleviate your aches and pains, but they can harm the kidneys—especially if you already have kidney disease. Reduce your regular use of NSAIDs and never go over the recommended dosage.

Cut the Processed Foods

Processed foods can be significant sources of sodium, nitrates, and phosphates, and have been linked to cancer, heart disease, and kidney disease. Try adopting the DASH diet to guide your healthy eating habits.

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise will keep your bones, muscles, blood vessels, heart, and kidneys healthy. Getting active for at least 30 minutes a day can also help you control blood pressure and lower blood sugar, which is vital to kidney health.

Control Blood Pressure and Diabetes

High blood pressure and diabetes are the leading causes of kidney disease and kidney failure. Managing high blood pressure and strict control of blood sugar levels can slow the progression of kidney disease. Speak with your doctor if you’re having trouble managing either one of these health issues.

When to Call a Doctor

If you fall into any of these risk categories, make an appointment with your doctor. Be prepared to list all symptoms you may be experiencing, a current list of the medications you’re taking (including supplements), and pertinent family history. With this information, and simple lab tests, the doctor can determine if you have kidney damage. If a diagnosis confirms kidney disease, your doctor will work up a treatment plan to begin to immediately relieve many of your symptoms. Treatment most often involves medication and changes in diet.

Dr. David Herminghuysen, at CCHC New Bern Internal Medicine Specialists, is board certified in Internal Medicine and Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism. He is currently accepting new patients and would be happy to discuss any concerns you may have about your kidney health and provide any education materials you might need. To make an appointment, call 252-633-5333.
(Sources: American Association of Kidney Patients; National Kidney Foundation; American Kidney Fund; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; Mayo Clinic; American Nephrology Nurses Association.)