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Renal (kidneys)

Your kidneys do an important job cleaning your blood by working as a filter to remove water and waste from the body. The wastes are what is left over in the blood from food used by the body and the body’s many functions. Most people have two kidneys which can be found on either side of the spine just below the ribs. You may have also heard the word ‘renal’ used as this is the medical term for referring to kidneys.

Kidneys can stop working properly for a number of reasons and people who have diabetes or high blood pressure are at greater risk. When the kidneys do not work properly it is called kidney disease. 

Symptoms of kidney (renal) failure do not usually appear until there is moderate to severe renal failure. Kidney failure will bring many changes to your life, affecting both you and your family/whānau, friends, colleagues.

Fortunately, most people learn to live with kidney failure. Although life may not be able to return to exactly how it was, with proper treatment, it can be just as good. It takes time and energy to adjust and reach acceptance but there are things that can be done to help.

Most people with kidney disease are unaware they have the condition. Many of the signs and symptoms are common in other conditions, and so may be attributed to other causes.

They include:

  • discomfort or burning when passing urine 
  • passing blood in the urine 
  • a change in the frequency and quantity of urine 
  • needing to pass urine frequently at night 
  • frothing (or foaming) urine 
  • pain in the loin area 
  • ankle swelling 
  • lack of concentration 
  • shortness of breath 
  • high blood pressure 
  • loss of appetite 
  • itching 
  • nausea and vomiting 
  • pins and needles in the fingers and toes 
  • restless legs.

A person with kidney disease may experience all or only some of these symptoms, and sometimes advanced kidney disease can be present without any warning signs or symptoms at all. If you or a member of your family has experienced any of these problems, consult your doctor.

How can you look after yourself?

Living with kidney failure means more than just staying alive. It is a real challenge to live life to the fullest despite the limitations imposed by kidney failure.

Finding out you have kidney disease, and living with it from then on, can be overwhelming. Your energy will be directed to your treatment and physical wellbeing. But looking after your emotional wellbeing is just as important as looking after your health.

End-stage kidney disease does not just affect you: it affects your entire family, your friends and those who care for you. Many of the changes and emotions affecting patients also apply to these people too. You may feel that your life has been turned upside down.

Having kidney disease means you will probably experience important life changes in your working life, in your personal and family life, in your finances and in other activities. These changes can cause a great deal of stress and a range of emotional reactions.

Some suggestions to help you manage

  • Pay attention to how you’re feeling and don’t ignore it. Even if you think it could be nothing, report your symptoms. You need to be involved in your care, and learn as much as you can about your disease and its treatment. As you learn more and talk to others with kidney disease, it won’t seem so scary.
  • You may want to talk about how you’re feeling, or you may find it hard to talk. Generally, it helps to talk about changes and feelings, and what they mean to you and your family. Keeping your concerns to yourself could increase your stress levels. As well as your friends and family, you may want to talk to your GP, someone from your kidney care team, other people with kidney disease, or someone else you trust. Remember that family and friends are not mind-readers. It is hard for them to know how to help you if you don’t tell them.
  • Your cultural and spiritual beliefs are very important, and can affect the way you feel about your kidney failure. Most kidney services have people you can talk to regarding cultural or spiritual matters, or they can refer you to the appropriate service.
  • Find out about your condition: knowledge is power. Learn as much as you can about your illness and the treatment you are having. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Staff like being asked and are happy to help.
  • Seek out professional support. Talk to a social worker about your fears and concerns: they may be able to find different ways to help you with some of the issues you are having. Find out if there are support groups in your area.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable talking to people, keep a diary of your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes writing things down can help you cope with feelings, and eventually it makes talking about feelings easier.
  • Take good care of yourself. Talk to your dietitian about what you need nutritionally. Talk to your doctor about beginning an exercise program. Indulge yourself in healthy things that bring you pleasure. Listen to relaxing music, read your favourite magazines or go to the movies. It’s OK to tell people you can’t do something because you just don’t feel up to it.
  • Accept help when you need it. People offer because they want to help. It makes them feel they are needed. It is really important to maintain your independence as much as you can.

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