What is Renal Insufficiency?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2019
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Renal insufficiency is a medical condition characterized by poor kidney function. It is also known as renal failure. When people are diagnosed with renal insufficiency, the condition is usually staged on the basis of how severely kidney function has been impaired for the purpose of developing an appropriate treatment plan. Stage I is the mildest form and Stage V is the most severe. Evaluation and treatment of patients with kidney problems may be supervised by a nephrologist, a doctor who specializes in treatment of the kidneys.

People can develop acute or chronic renal insufficiency. The acute form onsets suddenly, often as a result of an injury to the kidneys such as a physical trauma or an overdose of medication. Chronic renal insufficiency onsets slowly over time and is associated with risk factors like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, aging, and genetics. Damage to the kidneys puts people at risk of cardiovascular disease, and renal insufficiency can work the other way as well, with previously healthy patients developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems because of the kidney condition.


Symptoms of renal insufficiency vary, depending on the stage it has reached. Problems such as bloody, foamy, discolored, or strong smelling urine are commonly observed. Patients may feel fatigued, dizzy, and nauseous. Because filtration in the kidneys is slowed down, the patient may develop edema, where water is retained in the extremities and they start to swell. Patients can also become anemic, have difficulty concentrating, lose weight, struggle to urinate, experience memory loss, and develop diarrhea and vomiting.

Renal insufficiency can be diagnosed with blood tests to measure serum creatinine, a key tell-tale sign of kidney problems, and to check levels of other compounds in the blood. When the kidneys are not working properly, the things they are supposed to filter out and express in the urine start to build up in the blood, and this can be seen on a blood panel. The kidneys can also be imaged with ultrasound for signs of swelling and other abnormalities that might suggest problems with kidney function.

In the early stages of renal insufficiency, the condition may be manageable with medications and some dietary changes. If the disease has progressed, the patient may need dialysis, where an external machine filters the blood to assist the failing kidneys. Patients on dialysis may be considered for a kidney transplant. The transplant replaces the damaged kidney with a healthy donor kidney.



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