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What Are the Symptoms of Polycystic Kidney Disease?

By R. Bargar
Updated May 17, 2024
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Polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that causes numerous cysts on the kidneys, may be asymptomatic in some people while manifesting painful and numerous symptoms in others. The symptoms of polycystic kidney disease frequently do not show up until those affected by the autosomal dominant form of the disease are well into adulthood. Many people are unaware they have the disease due to the lack of symptoms and slow progression. High blood pressure may be one of the earliest symptoms, which might lead to a diagnosis of kidney disease. A much more rare, autosomal recessive form of the disease shows up in early childhood and progresses quickly to renal failure.

Over time, the growth of numerous cysts enlarges the kidneys while interfering with their functioning. Symptoms of polycystic kidney disease include pain in the sides or back, high blood pressure, and frequent urinary tract infections. The disease progresses slowly, with increasing symptoms, to this final phase, called end-stage renal disease when the kidneys completely fail. Approximately half of those suffering from the autosomal dominant form of polycystic kidney disease eventually develop kidney failure and require dialysis or a kidney transplant.

The most common of the symptoms of polycystic kidney disease — side and back pain — is due to enlarging of the kidneys and infections in the cysts. Pain may be severe at times, while absent at other times. Abdominal pain is another symptom, especially if the liver develops cysts, too. Blood in the urine may occur if cysts become infected and break open. As kidney function decreases, urination becomes more frequent, especially at night.

Numerous cysts develop in the nephrons of the kidneys, enlarging and breaking away from these tiny filtering units. Function of the kidneys is impacted as the cysts continue to increase and grow. The kidneys regulate body fluids, and interference with this function leads to hypertension. Another of the symptoms of polycystic kidney disease is an increase in red blood cells. The diseased kidneys secrete too much of the hormone that stimulates red blood cell production.

Polycystic kidney disease patients have more kidney stones than people without the disease. Aneurysms in the brain are also more common, as are frequent headaches. The liver, pancreas and testes might also develop cysts and infections. People suffering from the disease are at higher risk for developing diverticulosis of the colon. The enlargement of the kidneys puts pressure on other organs, and abdominal pain, digestive problems, and acid reflux may occur.

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