Chronic renal failure, or chronic kidney disease (CKD), is a slow and progressive decline of kidney function. It’s usually a result of a complication from another serious medical condition. Unlike acute renal failure, which happens quickly and suddenly, chronic renal failure happens gradually – over a period of weeks, months, or years – as the kidneys slowly stop working, leading to end-stage renal disease (ESRD).
The progression is so slow that symptoms usually don't appear until major damage is done. In the United States, approximately 1 in 1,000 people are getting treated for ESRD, and greater than 19 million adults are living with some type of CKD. In Canada, approximately 1.3 to 2.9 million people suffer from CKD.
The kidneys play three major roles:
- removing waste products from the body, keeping toxins from building up in the bloodstream
- producing hormones that control other body functions, such as regulating blood pressure and producing red blood cells
- regulating the levels of minerals or electrolytes (e.g., sodium, calcium, and potassium) and fluid in the body
The two kidneys in our body possess tiny filtering units, called nephrons, each of which is made up of a glomerulus (which acts as a kind of sieve to prevent important components such as red blood cells from being removed), and a tubule (a tube through which fluid passes).
It's entirely possible to live a full, healthy life with only one kidney – one fully functioning kidney can do the work of two – but it's essential to watch for signs of any problems with the remaining kidney.
When kidneys get to the point where they can't function at all, kidney dialysis or a transplant is the only way to remove the body's waste products.