Chronic kidney disease is a big problem in Aboriginal communities. You probably know at least one person with chronic kidney disease and maybe many more.
Where Are My Kidneys and What Do They Do?
Try putting your hands above the back pocket of your jeans — your kidneys are underneath this area. There’s one on either side of your spine, sitting just under your ribs or above the small of your back.
Your ribs, muscles and a layer of fat work together to protect your kidneys. Your body gives your kidneys this protection because they do so many important jobs, including:
- Controlling your blood pressure
- Filtering your blood to remove toxins
- Adding water to other waste products to make your pee
- Making sure you produce enough vitamin D, which you need for strong bones and muscles.
What’s Chronic Kidney Disease?
Chronic kidney disease is a long-term problem that happens when your kidneys are gradually damaged over time.
Stages of Chronic Kidney Disease
There are five stages of kidney disease. The disease gets more severe as your GFR drops. Stage 5 is also known as end-stage kidney disease. By this point, you’ll need regular kidney dialysis or a kidney transplant.
Kidney Disease Symptoms
Unfortunately, there’s often no warning of kidney disease. Some people lose almost all their kidney function before they notice any symptoms.
Symptoms of kidney disease are easily overlooked but they include:
- Pain near your kidneys
- Puffy legs, ankles or eyes
- Needing to pee more often
- Pee that looks different — frothy, foamy or bloody.
- Poor sleep
- Feeling short of breath
- Muscle cramps
- Pins and needles.
If your kidneys are getting worse, then your symptoms will probably get worse too.
Are Aboriginal People More Likely to Get Kidney Disease?
Sadly, yes. For each non-Indigenous Australian with Stage 4 or 5 kidney disease, there’ll be at least four of us.
There are higher rates of kidney disease in our communities because we already have higher rates of risk factors.
Risk Factors For Kidney Disease
You’re more likely to get kidney disease if you have:
- High blood pressure
- A family history of kidney problems
- Problems with your heart
- A history of stroke
Diabetes is the most common cause of kidney disease in Australia. High blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels in the kidneys, making it harder for them to filter waste. For each non-Indigenous Australian with diabetes, there’ll be four of us. You probably know quite a few people with diabetes. Having diabetes gives you a much higher risk of getting kidney disease.
Other common causes of kidney disease include:
- Being overweight
- Getting older
- Being born prematurely with small kidneys
- Being an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
Preventing Kidney Disease
You can change some of these risk factors by changing your behaviour. If you have diabetes, then eat healthily and take your insulin or tablets as recommended by your doctor to control your blood sugar. If you have high blood pressure, then follow your doctor’s advice and try to lower it. If you smoke, get help to quit. If you’re overweight, try to get lighter.
How Is Chronic Kidney Disease Diagnosed?
If your doctor is worried that your kidneys aren’t working properly, then you’ll probably need some tests. That might involve a biopsy or an ultrasound but will almost definitely involve urine and blood tests.
Urine tests look for:
- Albuminuria, where you have a protein called albumin in your pee
- Haematuria, where you have blood in your pee.
The blood test measures creatinine in your blood. This is a waste product made by your muscles. You normally pee it out but, if your kidneys aren’t working well, it can build up in your blood instead.
Your doctor will use your creatinine levels, as well as your age and gender, to judge how well your kidneys are cleaning your blood. This is called your glomerular filtration rate (GFR). It’s the best measure of kidney function.
Treatments for Chronic Kidney Disease
Treatments for early-stage kidney disease focus on lifestyle changes and medication to keep your kidneys working.
Treatments for later-stage kidney disease are:
- Kidney transplant: This is where another person’s kidney is put into your body to replace yours. This is sometimes the best option but it’s hard for Aboriginal people to get a kidney transplant because of other health and social problems and difficulties in finding a matching donor.
- Kidney dialysis: This is the most common treatment for Aboriginal people. For the rest of your life, you go into hospital (or sometimes into an outreach clinic) several times a week and a dialysis machine does the job that your kidneys would usually do. Your blood is sucked out of your body through one tube, cleaned by the machine, then put back into your body through another tube.
- Supportive care: If you’d rather let nature take its course, you can choose supportive care. This involves medication, dietary advice and palliative care to manage your symptoms and support you and your family as your kidney disease progresses.
How CRAICCHS Can Help
CRAICCHS can help you lower your risk of kidney disease. We can also check your kidneys and find out how they are. That’s important because you might not notice any symptoms until very late. Like many other diseases, you have more treatment options for kidney disease if it’s diagnosed in its early stages.
You can make an appointment with CRAICCHS by calling 1800 698 600. We’re here to help you.