One of the differences between kidney failure and other diseases is that renal failure does not point to the site of the problem. In fact, very few people complain of kidney pain.

And although some persons with early renal problems get up to urinate during the night more frequently, there are many other causes that relate to this symptom. So, how can you tell if you have kidneys disease?

What is Kidney Failure?

Kidney failure means that the kidneys have lost some (but not all) of the capacity they have to filtrate the constituents in the plasma, the watery part of the blood. Conditions that can cause a decrease in this filtration capacity of the kidneys are:

  • A fall in blood pressure
  • A blockage of the blood that goes to the kidneys
  • A blockage of the urine outflow
  • Disease of the kidneys
  • Kidney failure can be acute or chronic

Acute kidney failure

Acute kidney failure can be caused by:

  • Drugs toxic to the kidneys
  • A severe reduction of the blood flowing to the kidneys (for example during surgery)
  • Many other causes
  • Patients with acute kidney failure can recover in a few weeks although they may need dialysis just for a short while.

Chronic kidney failure

This type of kidney failure is generally not reversible and it can get worse with time. When about two-thirds of the filtration capacity of the kidneys is lost, the symptoms of kidney failure start to appear. When seven-eighths or so is lost, survival depends either on dialysis or on transplanting a new kidney. This is called end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

Today we’ll look at the main symptoms of kidney failure. Again, keep in mind that these symptoms appear when most kidney function has been lost. If you think you are at risk for kidney failure, ask your doctor to test you.


Fatigue is the most common symptom of chronic kidney failure, and the first one to appear. If you have the following symptoms you may have kidney failure already.

  1. You are constantly feeling tired
  2. You lack a sensation of well-being
  3. You lack of energy
  4. You feel tired at the end of the day
  5. Or you become tired quickly during mild activity

It is important to remember that the main function of the kidneys is not just to get rid of waste. The main kidney function is to keep the extracellular fluid, the fluid found outside the body cells, constant. The kidneys make sure that this extracellular fluid has the right composition to feed our cells with the needed salts, acid, nutrients, and many other constituents.

This function is extremely important because it is the way our cells get the nutrients they need to function. When the kidneys lose this ability, the cells die. When enough cells die, the organs die, and then, we die.

Another very important function of the kidneys is the production of the following hormones:

  • Angiotensin, a hormone that raises blood pressure by constricting blood vessels and also stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce another hormone, aldosterone. aldosterone is very important in regulating sodium excretion.
  • Erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red cells whenever their number is reduced.
  • Prostaglandins, which help regulate blood pressure, sodium excretion, and other functions.

As you can see here, if your kidneys are not working properly, the production of erythropoietin may not happen or may not happen in enough amounts to stimulate the bone marrow to produce more red cells and the result is anemia. This explains why people with kidney failure can be very tired.

Keep in mind also that fatigue can have other explanations, but if you suffer from it, it is worth it to insist that your doctor checks your kidney function.

Muscle Cramps

The second most common complaint of patients with chronic kidney failure is muscle cramps. Most of the times, these cramps occur in the calf muscles (the back of your leg, underneath your knee), but they can also occur in any other group of muscles. They often appear at night and can be very painful.

Not everybody with kidney problems gets muscle cramps and healthy individuals can get them if they have used these muscles doing strenuous physical activity.

A deficiency in potassium can trigger muscle cramps

When there is a severe deficiency of potassium, kidney function decreases. Chronic diarrhea or overuse of laxatives can cause a low level of potassium and trigger kidney failure. For example, the kidneys have a mechanism that when facing dehydration, they conserve liquid and reduce the amount of urine. But if potassium is lacking, the kidneys lose this ability, so these patients tend to excrete large volumes of urine, despite their reduce kidney function.

Patients who need to take potassium supplements often notice that when they stop taking the supplements, their muscle cramps get worse.

How to increase potassium in your diet?

Increasing the potassium in your diet reduces or eliminates muscle cramps. How can you do that? By eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing the salt intake. Remember that a large amount in our diet comes from process food and fast food.

Other symptoms of renal failure

Loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. Loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting are common symptoms of severe kidney failure. They usually appear when the blood urea (urea is a by-product of animal protein intake) concentration gets quite high, but some changes in appetite, particularly an aversion to meat, can occur much earlier.

  1. Easy bruising: Easy bruising is a sign of severe kidney failure but can also be a symptom in patients with quite mild kidney failure. Although some people have the tendency to bruise easily, in severe cases of kidney failure, the forearms and hands may become mottled with bruises. It reflects the fragility of the capillaries.
  2. Itching: Patients with relatively severe kidney failure complain of dry skin. Itching usually appears however when loss of kidney function is severe (about 80%) and anemia seems to trigger itching. Conventional medicine is not too effective at reducing itching in patients with kidney failure. Lack of vitamin B12 can cause both anemia and skin problems such as itching and eczema.
  3. Voiding frequently at night: This is caused because the kidneys lose their ability to retain the urine for too long.
  4. Numbness and tingling: Numbness and tingling usually happens in the hands and feet due to nerve damage caused from uremia, a high volume of urea in the urine.
  5. Other symptoms of renal failure include thirst, headache, a bad taste in the mouth, somnolence, insomnia, twitching or restless legs, difficulty concentrating, impaired memory, diarrhea and constipation


An early sign of kidney disease is protein in the urine. You can test yourself very easily at home to find out if you have protein in the urine. You just need paper strips that you can buy without a prescription at your local pharmacy. The test is quite simple; you just hold a paper strip in the urinary stream and look at the color of the strip after it has been impregnated with your urine.

The package containing the strips will have the instructions on how to use them, nevertheless. A change in color will indicate protein or glucose in the urine. If you don’t find protein or glucose in your urine, do not worry, but check frequently if you suspect you are at high risk for kidney disease, for example if you have diabetes. If you find either protein or glucose, or both, tell your doctor. Hopefully, he will know what to do.

Final word

The kidneys have many functions besides the excretion of waste and you cannot live without your kidneys because of the important role they play. Complete loss of kidney function causes death within a few weeks.

The good news is that we seem to have much more kidney function than we need, because with adequate care, a person can survive with as little as 5 percent of normal kidney function. Thus donation of one kidney does not cause any signs of kidney dysfunction in the donor.



I am Andy Carpenter and I would start by saying that I have a Bachelor Degree in Nutrition Science conferred by California State University, Los Angeles and that I am certified as a Registered Dietitian.

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