Kidney Awareness

Everyone knows they have kidneys, but many are unaware of the role that these small yet vital organs play in your overall health. Without proper treatment, kidney disease can eventually lead to kidney failure. It’s also labeled a “silent killer” since symptoms are often mild or not apparent until the later stages. A staggering 37 million Americans have kidney disease, yet most are undiagnosed.

To learn more about kidneys and kidney disease, we sat down with Dr. Daniel Barton, a kidney and hypertension specialist at Trumbull Regional Medical Center in Warren, OH. Dr. Barton clarifies what kidneys do and what illnesses can affect them, provides some helpful tips to maintain healthy kidneys, and discusses what he wishes more people knew about kidneys during National Kidney Month.


What are kidneys, and what do they do?

Kidneys are “a busy pair of organs that sit in our back,” explains Dr. Barton. “Their main job is waste disposal. They eliminate the normal byproducts of the body’s metabolism from multiple different sources.” Kidneys are also a water system. They preserve water when the body is dehydrated to maintain or expel excess water via urination.

The other major function of the kidneys is homeostasis. Kidneys help regulate the level of every electrolyte in your body by filtering blood across the entire system. “They actually are part and parcel of the immune system,” says Dr. Barton. They also help in the production of blood, the regulation of vitamin D and bone metabolism.


What is kidney disease?

Kidney disease is a general term for a group of diseases that affect either kidney structure or kidney function. Since kidneys operate across many systems, when their function starts to decline, every other organ becomes involved. Kidney disease falls into two general categories:

  • Systemic diseases that affect the kidney, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and lupus.
  • Primary diseases of the kidney that start in the kidney and stay in the kidney. These diseases tend to not affect other organs until they are quite advanced.


What are some of the main symptoms?

“The most common symptom is none,” according to Dr. Barton. “Most patients don’t experience a symptom until their kidney function has reached a more advanced phase.”

In general, symptoms of advanced kidney disease tend to be vague and hard to identify unless you know there’s already something wrong with the kidneys. Common symptoms include fatigue, ankle swelling, anorexia or loss of appetite, itching, and bubbles in the urine.


Who should see a doctor?

Since symptoms often do not appear, it is important that everybody gets screened routinely when they see their doctor, starting at a relatively young age. People should follow the appropriate guidelines for their age and health on how often to see a physician, which generally increase in frequency at higher ages. Kidney screenings themselves consist of testing blood and urine for high levels of protein, which signals that the kidneys are not filtering waste as they should.

Certain patients who are more likely to develop kidney disease require more intensive or frequent screening. These include people with diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), a connective tissue disorder such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, as well as the elderly and anybody with a family history of kidney disease.


What are some habits to keep one’s kidneys healthy?

Dr. Barton recommends lifestyle modifications such as a healthy diet and regular exercise to prevent damage to the kidneys and also promote overall health.

  • Following the DASH diet, which includes drinking plenty of water, gaining protein from plant-based sources, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Quitting smoking
  • Minimizing the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil
  • Getting regular exercise and fresh air

For those with loved ones diagnosed with kidney disease, encouraging them to make these healthy changes and even making the changes alongside them is one of the most important ways to support them, along with making sure they are taking their medication as prescribed.


How is kidney disease treated?

In addition to lifestyle changes, Dr. Barton explains that treating kidney disease largely depends on the underlying disease. “Our first goal is to identify it,” he says. For example, the best way to treat kidney disease in patients with diabetes is to control the diabetes.

Otherwise, Dr. Barton says that the most important thing to do to treat kidney disease is to control blood pressure. Depending on the patient’s age and underlying diseases, there are certain goals set for blood pressure. Keeping the patient’s blood pressure at those goals makes a big difference in terms of preserving their kidney function over time. “Treatment of kidney disease involves not only treating the primary problem of the kidney but also treating the whole patient,” he says.


What are some common misconceptions about kidney disease?

“One of the misconceptions is that it’s not all that common,” says Dr. Barton. While other diseases may get more attention, kidney disease is one of the most common illnesses and affects around 15% of American adults.

Dr. Barton also notes that most people with kidney disease don’t look at all different from the average person. Out of the roughly 600,000 people in the U.S. who have suffered kidney failure and receive dialysis treatments, most are actually doing alright. “There’s definitely a perception that once one develops kidney disease, there will be apparent symptoms of illness, whereas most people are actually relatively healthy and still functioning well,” explains Dr. Barton.


What do I wish more people knew about kidneys and kidney disease?

Dr. Barton concludes that he wishes “more people knew what the kidneys do.” He elaborates that they are an especially important organ because they are involved in so many other systems within the body, so any decline in their function can cause severe problems elsewhere. Being aware of what your kidneys do and how to keep them healthy, along with going in for regular screenings, can go a long way towards improving your overall health. 


To find a doctor or schedule an appointment, visit Steward DoctorFinder™.

Dr. Barton is on Medical Staff at Trumbull Regional Medical Center, is a consulting nephrology (kidney)/hypertension specialist at the hospital and serves as a faculty member of the Western Reserve Residency Program at Trumbull Regional in addition to having his own office-based practices in both Youngstown and Warren, Ohio.  Dr. Barton graduated medical school from The Ohio State University and completed his residency and fellowship at Cleveland Clinic.

This website stores data such as cookies to enable essential site functionality, as well as personalization and analytics. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies. For more information about these cookies and the data collected, please refer to our policy.

View Policy