Kidney Disease - Early Detection Thwarted By Silent Symptoms

by : News Canada

The first clues started to appear about a year before I was diagnosed, but the signs were small and insignificant,' said Carrie Donohue. 'I was having intense headaches and muscle cramps in my hands and feet, and I was always thirsty. Looking back now, it seems obvious that these were signs of kidney disease, only my husband and I didn't know it then.'

Carrie's story is not unique. When a person's kidneys fail, it seems to happen suddenly, without warning. They learn afterwards that their kidneys had been failing slowly - unknown to them - for quite some time. The signs were there, but often mistaken for something else, or simply overlooked.

These silent symptoms have given rise to new approaches in the effort to stem the tide of chronic kidney disease (CKD), which doctors estimate at 1.9 million cases in Canada today. Thanks to research and sophisticated disease tracking systems, specific groups of people have been identified as most likely to develop kidney disease and the push is on for better screening of those at risk.

The high-risk category includes people who are over 50 years of age, have diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease, or have a family history of kidney disease. Yet despite this knowledge, it remains difficult to identify chronic kidney disease early enough to begin the type of care that would either delay or avoid the onset of end-stage renal disease when either dialysis or a transplant becomes necessary.

'Many of the symptoms of CKD are difficult to diagnose,' said Dr. Adeera Levin, former President of the Canadian Society of Nephrology and member of The Kidney Foundation of Canada's National Research Council. 'Itching, thirst, fatigue and muscle cramping are not specific to kidney disease and don't raise a warning flag to most people, especially since they are likely living with other health conditions that tend to mask, or overshadow them.'

'We know that - if detected early enough - it is possible to reverse or slow the progress of chronic kidney disease,' explained Levin. 'For many people this could mean not having to go on dialysis or, at the very least, delay it for years.'

The Kidney Foundation of Canada recommends that people at risk take a more proactive approach to their health. For example, if you are a person with diabetes, strict blood sugar control is important. Controlling high blood pressure can also prevent kidney damage.

However, not all people who develop chronic kidney disease fall into these high-risk groups. Carrie Donohue was otherwise healthy and in her mid-twenties when she began experiencing symptoms. That's why The Kidney Foundation also recommends that all Canadians learn about the warning signs of kidney disease, and that they talk to their doctor about the possibility of blood and urine tests to identify problems early.

Today, Carrie leads a normal life. Thanks to a living kidney donation from her husband, Ken, she was able to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. Her story has a happy ending. However, a greater understanding and awareness of the warning signs could make stories like these a thing of the past.