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Functions of our kidneys and what to look out for in kidney diseases

Dr. med. Martina Pechula Thut

Dr. med. Martina Pechula Thut

July 6, 2023

reading time

6 min

The kidneys fulfil vital functions in our body and are also known as our body's "sewage treatment plant". On this page, you can find out what tasks our kidneys fulfil and what happens if kidney function is impaired by a disease.

Where are our kidneys located?

As a rule, we have two kidneys, each of which is about 10 to 12 centimetres long and weighs about 150 grams. They are located to the left and right of the spine at approximately the level of the 11th and 12th ribs. Together with the adrenal glands, our kidneys are embedded in a fat capsule and are therefore well protected.

What are the tasks of the kidneys?

The kidneys fulfil a variety of tasks in the body. In particular, they act as a kind of "sewage treatment plant". This means that they ensure the excretion of toxins and metabolic products via the urine. They regulate the fluid balance and excrete or retain excess fluid. They are also important for the electrolyte balance (i.e. "blood salts") and maintaining the acid-base balance. The kidneys are also significantly involved in blood pressure regulation and bone metabolism and they produce erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates the formation of red blood cells in the bone marrow.

Do we need both kidneys?

Humans have two kidneys to ensure optimal function. However, we can also live very well with just one kidney. Some people are born with only one kidney. Others have only one functioning kidney due to various causes in the course of their lives. As long as the single kidney works reliably, you can live with one kidney without any problems. This can also be seen, for example, in the case of a living donation, where a kidney is removed from a healthy person.

What kidney diseases are there?

There are a large number of different kidney diseases. These can occur acutely or develop chronically. Acute kidney function impairment can occur, for example, in so-called glomerulonephritis. This is a series of diseases that affect the vascularised clusters (glomerula) of the kidneys. The cause can be an autoimmune disease. Sometimes, however, they also occur in conjunction with other diseases or the cause is unknown. In addition, severe infections such as pneumonia, circulatory failure, urinary flow disorders or medication can also lead to acute renal dysfunction.

In the western world, the most common causes of chronic kidney disease are long-term diabetes mellitus (i.e. high blood sugar) or high blood pressure. Genetic diseases - such as cystic kidneys - or tumours can also lead to a deterioration in kidney function. Overall, the risk of chronic kidney disease increases with age.

  • Portrait photo of Dr Martina Pechula Thut

    Dr Martina Pechula Thut, Head of Nephrology

    Over 10 per cent of the world's population is affected by kidney disease. The trend is rising, as the risk factors for kidney disease are increasing. These are, in particular, diabetes ("diabetes"), obesity and high blood pressure.


Are kidney diseases rare diseases?

No, they are quite common. Over 10 per cent of the world's population is affected by kidney disease. The trend is rising, as the risk factors for kidney disease are increasing. These are in particular diabetes ("diabetes"), obesity and high blood pressure.

What are the symptoms of kidney disease?

You often don't feel any symptoms for a long time. Symptoms often only appear when kidney function is already significantly reduced. These can be non-specific and varied. If the detoxification function no longer works, symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, tiredness, itching and/or muscle weakness. Reduced urine output, water retention in the legs, high blood pressure and anaemia may also be noticeable.

How can kidney disease be prevented?

Avoiding obesity is an important factor. But healthy blood pressure is also essential. It is therefore recommended that you lead a healthy lifestyle. This includes a healthy diet, sufficient exercise, stress reduction and a reduction in alcohol and tobacco consumption.

How can kidney disease be treated today?

There are various treatment options depending on the underlying disease. In many cases, kidney disease can be treated with medication. In addition, drugs have been developed in recent years that have a favourable effect on kidney disease and can delay the progression of the disease. Further information can be found under Nephrology and Dialysis Centre.

Portrait photo of Dr Martina Pechula Thut

Dr. med. Martina Pechula Thut

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