April 10, 2018

These are the warning signs of polycystic kidney disease that can lead to kidney failure.

A sharp spike in blood pressure was James George’s first symptom before a diagnosis of polycystic kidney disease, but it wasn’t his first warning.

“My mom had discussed it with us and explained the disease,” said the now 67-year-old father and grandfather. His mother had the disease and so did her sister. All four of James’ siblings have been diagnosed.

What is polycystic kidney disease?

Polycystic kidney disease is an inherited disorder in which cysts – clusters of fluid-filled sacs – form in the kidneys, interfering with kidney function and sometimes causing issues for other organs, including the liver.

A somewhat common genetic disorder, polycystic kidney disease affects about 500,000 people. Children whose parents have a 50 percent chance.

The cysts caused by polycystic kidney disease are non-cancerous but can grow very large and hamper the kidneys’ natural ability to filter waste from the blood, experience kidney failure, leading to dialysis treatments, in which the blood is filtered and kidney transplants.

In James’ case, he needed a liver transplant first because of the damage the disease did to his liver. As his kidney function decreased, he began taking dialysis, often going with this mother, then had a kidney transplant about 10 years after the first surgery.

“People who need kidney transplants have some form of the disease that causes kidney failure,” said Dr. Rachel Forbes, James’ Vanderbilt kidney transplant surgeon. “James’ was polycystic kidney disease. It’s usually inherited in families and causes cysts in the kidneys and liver. The cysts basically take over the normal function and the kidneys are unable to perform as they usually would. These cysts often get very large, sometimes thirty pounds, because it is filled with so many fluid cysts.”

Signs of polycystic kidney disease

Knowing your family history and discussing it with your healthcare provider are both important for the detection of polycystic kidney disease.

Signs of polycystic kidney disease appear differently in patients, but the most common symptom is high blood pressure. Other symptoms include:

  • Pain in the back and side
  • Blood in the urine
  • Frequent kidney infections

A polycystic kidney disease diagnosis may require patients to change the way they eat to control blood pressure. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, following a healthy eating plan can help. Healthcare providers often recommend a diet for people with polycystic kidney disease called the DASH diet, which focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and foods lower in sodium.

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