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Chronic kidney disease - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a long-term condition where the kidneys do not work effectively.

CKD does not usually cause symptoms until reaching an advanced stage. It is usually detected at earlier stages by blood and urine tests. Main symptoms of advanced kidney disease include:

  • tiredness
  • swollen ankles, feet or hands (due to water retention)
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • blood in the urine

Read more about the symptoms of chronic kidney disease.

Chronic kidney disease is most frequently diagnosed through blood and urine tests.

If you are at a high risk of developing CKD, you may be screened annually. Screening may be recommended if you have:

Read more about diagnosing chronic kidney disease.

Why does it happen?

The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located on either side of the body, just beneath the ribcage. The main role of the kidneys is to filter waste products from the blood before converting them into urine. The kidneys also:

  • help maintain blood pressure 
  • maintain the correct levels of chemicals in your body which, in turn, will help heart and muscles function properly
  • produce a type of vitamin D that keeps bones healthy 
  • produce a substance called erythropoietin, which helps stimulate production of red blood cells

Chronic kidney disease is the reduced ability of the kidney to carry out these functions in the long-term. This is most often caused by the strain placed on the kidneys by other conditions, most commonly diabetes and high blood pressure.

Read more about the causes of chronic kidney disease.

Who is affected?

CKD is  common and mainly associated with ageing. The older you get, the more likely you are to have some degree of kidney disease.

It is estimated that about one in five men and one in four women between the ages of 65 and 74 has some degree of CKD.

CKD is more common in people of south Asian origin (those from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan) and black people than the general population. The reasons for this include higher rates of diabetes in south Asian people and higher rates of high blood pressure in African or Caribbean people.

Read more about black health and south Asian health.

Treating chronic kidney disease

There is no cure for chronic kidney disease, although treatment can slow or halt the progression of the disease and can prevent other serious conditions developing.

People with CKD are known to have an increased risk of a stroke or heart attack because of changes that occur to the circulation.

In some people, CKD may cause kidney failure, also known as established renal failure (ERF) or end-stage kidney disease. In this situation, the usual functions of the kidney stop working.

In order to survive, people with ERF may need to have artificial kidney treatment, called dialysis.

Read more about treating chronic kidney disease.

Being diagnosed with chronic kidney disease can be worrying, but support and advice are available to ensure it does not rule your life.

Read more about living with chronic kidney disease.

Preventing chronic kidney disease

The main way to reduce the chances of CKD developing is to ensure any existing conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, are carefully managed.

Some lifestyle changes can also reduce the risk of CKD developing, including:

  • having a healthy diet
  • avoiding drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • exercising regularly

Read more about preventing chronic kidney disease.

Want to know more?

Medical Review: August 19, 2012
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