Living well with only one kidney

Most of us take for granted our kidneys.  Unless we’ve been told otherwise, we assume we have two functioning kidneys about the size of a fist doing their day-to-day job of keeping the composition of our blood stable allowing the body to function.  These bean-shaped organs work hard at preventing buildup of wastes and extra fluid in the body along with stabilizing electrolytes of sodium, potassium, and phosphate among other duties they do. As long as they are performing as they should, we barely think about the fact of “what if I only had one kidney?”

Why some people may only have one kidney

There are various reason why a person may only have one kidney:

·A person can be born with only one kidney, a condition called renal agenesis.  About one in 750 people are born with only one kidney and it is more common in males than females.  Usually it is the left kidney that is missing. Because it is possible to be healthy with one kidney, it may not be discovered until a person has an x-ray or sonogram at some point in their life.

·Another condition called kidney dysplasia is when a person is born with two kidneys but only one of them works.

·Sometimes a person may have had a kidney removed - the surgical procedure is called a nephrectomy - to treat an injury or a disease like cancer

·A person may have donated a kidney to someone else who needed a kidney transplant

Taking good care of your one kidney

First and foremost, the majority of people with only one kidney are living normal, healthy lives with minimal problems.  But, because they are lacking a kidney, it is important for them to take extra special care of that last one left. 

Generally the same advice that applies to someone with two kidneys also applies to someone with one kidney – eat a healthy diet, exercise, maintain a healthy body weight, drink plenty of water, and get regular medical checkups. 

However there are certain precautions that should be taken in addition by someone living with a single kidney:

·Regulate blood pressure – Having only one kidney puts a person at a higher risk for high blood pressure.  They should frequently have their blood pressure checked and always tell a doctor they only have one kidney before taking any medications to help regulate hypertension. 

·Monitor GFR efficiency – GFR stands for glomerular filtration rate which measures how well the kidneys remove waste from the bloodstream.  When a person only has one kidney, the rate should be monitored to make sure the single kidney if functioning properly. 

·Regulate protein intake – Proteinuria is a condition in which too much protein leaks from the blood into the urine.  People with only one kidney can be susceptible to proteinuria. If there is an excess of protein being lost from the blood, then the body will retain fluid and sodium which can result in swelling in the ankles or abdomen.  To prevent or treat proteinuria, a person with one kidney should discuss with their doctor the need for possibly reducing their intake of protein in the diet. 

·Protect a single kidney if participating in contact sports – If a person with only one kidney is participating in a contact sport, the remaining kidney can often become enlarged from the increased work it has to do.  In people with a single kidney studies have shown that it can do as much as 40 percent more work than when it’s part of a pair.  This makes protecting one kidney very important.  Before engaging in a contact sport -such as football, wrestling, boxing, hockey, soccer, or martial arts – check with a doctor to get their opinion.  It may be suggested to wear equipment to protect the kidney or to choose a different sport that avoids contact.

Recognize signs if a kidney starts to fail

Having only one kidney also means being familiar with any signs or symptoms if their kidney is beginning to fail.  Symptoms of kidney failure include:

·Swelling in the face or ankles

·Changes in urine frequency/color or a foamy appearance

·Nausea or vomiting

·Changes in the taste of food

·Numbness in the fingers or toes

·Fatigue or exhaustion

Any of the above symptoms one is experiencing warrants a trip to see a doctor right away.  When a person’s kidney function is failing and they develop end stage renal disease, they have two options – dialysis and a kidney transplant.  To determine which option is best, this will need to be decided between a patient and their doctor.  Keep in mind, even if a patient opts to go for a kidney transplant, they may still have to go on dialysis while waiting for a match. 

In summary

As long as a person with only one kidney follows the advice in this article, they can expect to live a long , healthy life with few problems.  And to remember, even if there one remaining kidney fails there are treatment options available.