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We don’t give kidneys much thought, but they are vital to our wellbeing. They keep our blood clean by filtering waste materials from food, medications and other substances. They also balance body fluids and create hormones that keep us healthy.

You would think therefore that as soon as problems developed, those bean-shaped organs would let us know. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

“Signs or symptoms of impaired kidney function can include feeling tired, lethargy, weakness, inability to concentrate. Just a general ill feeling,” said Anuj Chopra, MD, urologist at UPMC Susquehanna Sunbury.

Kidney problems can run the gamut from kidney stones to obstruction of the kidney, cancer, kidney injury or infection and chronic kidney disease (CKD). The prevalence of kidney dysfunction increases with age.

Kidney stones, of course, typically announce themselves with acute pain. After treatment or after the stones pass on their own, a physician will suggest dietary changes that might help prevent future stones from forming.

For other kidney issues, primary diagnosis is made through a blood test, which is a good start to evaluate anything along the lines of weakness and fatigue, Dr. Chopra said. And though a kidney diagnosis is always scary, it’s not always a lifelong issue.

“A large percentage of patients would have some degree of kidney dysfunction during the course of their life. But does that mean a life-threatening situation? No,” Dr. Chopra said. “Not always does kidney dysfunction cause any clinical problems.”

Treatment for a diagnosis somewhere along the spectrum of kidney disease can start with changes the patient can control.

“As one may move through levels of kidney dysfunction, the first thing that can be done is behavior modification,” Dr. Chopra said. “Increasing fluid intake. Making sure all other conditions are well treated. Stopping things such as smoking that could further damage the kidneys.”

High among the list of those other conditions that must be well treated are diabetes and hypertension, said Manzoor Shah, MD, FACP, Internal Medicine of Evangelical-Lewisburg. Both issues tend to put a strain on kidney function and can lead to problems. Controlling diabetes and hypertension can be a big help in preventing the development of chronic kidney disease.

“Those two conditions make up 75 percent of the chronic kidney disease diagnoses,” Dr. Shah said. “Scrupulous control of these two conditions is of paramount importance.”

For chronic kidney disease a patient should follow a low salt diet and have the proper balance of protein, phosphorous and potassium.

“He has to be very careful about the diet he is eating,” Shah said. “Food is important. Hydration is important.”

The National Institute of Health also recommends maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough sleep, limiting alcohol intake and managing other conditions like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

People with kidney dysfunction should also avoid NSAIDs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil, Motrin, Aleve, etc. These can damage already compromised kidneys and lead to acute kidney injury.

It might be important to note, however, that NSAIDs do not cause kidney dysfunction.

“Let me be perfectly clear. In a healthy person taking NSAIDs, it does not affect the kidney function,” Dr. Shah said, adding that taking NSAIDs with a pre-existing kidney problem may cause kidney function to worsen. “In a healthy person, it is not the cause (of CKD). Only with a pre-existing kidney condition.”

Maintaining healthy kidneys is the best way to avoid trouble.

“Obviously, avoid having some of the risk factors (smoking, hypertension, diabetes),” Dr. Chopra said. “Keep yourself well hydrated and overall take care of yourself. Have periodic physical examinations and maintain your health.”

Drinking the recommended amount of water each day might be one of the kindest and easiest things a person can do for his or her kidneys. Dr. Shah compared the human body to Earth, both of which are made up of 60 percent or more water.

“The important thing is hydration,” Dr. Shah said. “Try to avoid dehydration in any kind of situation. Dehydration is detrimental to the normal functioning of the body.”