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Acute Kidney Injury

What Is Acute Kidney Injury and Failure?

Your kidneys:

  • Remove waste products from the body.
  • Help control blood pressure.
  • Help maintain electrolyte and acid/base balance in your body.

Kidney failure occurs when the kidneys stop working, most often because of chronic kidney disease causing damage over time. But acute kidney injury happens suddenly.

Causes of acute kidney injury and failure

Many health problems can cause acute kidney injury and failure.

Low blood pressure

Issues that can cause low blood pressure include:

  • Heart attacks or heart failure
  • Other organ failure
  • Overuse of pain medications or other drug effects
  • Burns
  • Severe diarrhea or other GI problems
  • Severe starvation or dehydration

Direct damage to the kidneys

Certain autoimmune/inflammatory diseases or exposures to chemical toxins or drugs can directly damage the kidney.

Blockages that block the flow of urine out of the body

Issues that can block the flow of urine include:

  • An enlarged prostate
  • Bladder dysfunction
  • Certain cancers
  • Kidney stones

Acute kidney injury risks and complications

Factors that may increase your risk for acute kidney injury include:

  • Any serious condition that causes a hospital stay.
  • Kidney disease of any kind.
  • Diabetes.
  • Being over the age of 60.
  • Certain cancers.

Complications linked to acute kidney injury include:

  • Permanent kidney damage.
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs.
  • Life-threatening electrolyte problems, such as high potassium levels.
  • Accumulation of drugs in the body that your kidney normally processes, and associated side effects.

Recovery from kidney injury depends on what caused the damage and your overall health.

Why choose UPMC for kidney care?

At the UPMC Kidney Disease Center:

  • Our world-renowned experts treat the full spectrum of kidney diseases using the latest techniques for diagnosis and treatment.
  • We'll work with you to find a reversible cause for your kidney injury.
  • We help you choose a treatment option including supportive care, dialysis, or kidney transplant.

After treatment, your kidneys may fully heal. In some cases, acute kidney injury may cause permanent damage and require more advanced treatment.

Acute Kidney Injury Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of kidney failure and damage

Call your doctor if you suffer from:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Confusion
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Heavy or sudden bleeding
  • Insomnia
  • Itching
  • Lack of urine
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea or lack of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Seizures
  • Swelling in the legs or ankles, or around the eyes

Diagnosing acute kidney injury

If your doctor thinks acute kidney injury is the cause of your signs and symptoms, they will refer you to a nephrologist.

Your kidney doctor will order a series of tests, including:

  • Blood tests. Blood tests measure waste products such as creatinine and blood urea nitrogen (BUN). If your kidneys aren't working properly, both of these levels will be higher than normal. Your doctor will also measure electrolytes like potassium which can become abnormal during kidney failure.
  • Urine tests. Urine tests will help your doctor learn what's causing your kidney failure.
  • Imaging tests such as ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI. These may show if there's a block in the urinary tract or in the blood vessels that lead to the kidneys.

Acute Kidney Injury and Failure Treatment

At the UPMC Kidney Disease Center, we'll work with you to find the cause of your acute kidney injury. Then we'll design a treatment plan based on that cause.

If diagnosed early, acute kidney injury treatments include:

  • Diet changes. You might need to make some diet changes to reduce strain on your injured kidneys or to support healing.
  • Medicine. Depending on the cause of your injury, some drugs may help support your kidneys while they heal. You may need to stop medications that harm the kidney, or adjust the dose of medications you already take.
  • Dialysis. In some cases, your kidneys may temporarily stop performing their vital functions. Dialysis can perform the functions of the kidney, cleaning waste from your blood, maintaining electrolyte and acid/base balance, and controlling your blood pressure.

For cases where injury has led to kidney failure, we'll help you decide the best treatment for you such as:

  • Supportive care. For some individuals, dialysis is not an ideal solution. With supportive care, we can help individuals live with kidney disease and avoid dialysis. Our experts stand at the forefront of research and treatment for supportive care.
  • Hemodialysis. Hemodialysis is provided in the hospital or in a specialty clinic three times a week. We partner with many clinics in the community to allow patients to dialyze close to home, and we can also help set up hemodialysis in your home.
  • Peritoneal dialysis. Peritoneal dialysis is another type of dialysis that can be done in your home. UPMC is an international leader in this type of technique.
  • Kidney transplant. Transplant is the only cure for permanent kidney failure. We work with the leading surgeons at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute to provide this treatment.

No matter the cause of your kidney injury, you have hope at the UPMC Kidney Disease Center. We're here to help you return to a healthy life.

Contact the UPMC Kidney Disease Center

To learn more about kidney disease: