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What can go wrong with your kidneys?
Kidney disease is a growing epidemic and the number of Australians with kidney disease is on the rise. There are often no symptoms in the early stages of many kidney conditions.

When they do occur the initial signs may be general such as feeling tired or generalised itching. As kidney disease progresses, the symptoms can include changes in the urine (reduced volume, discolouration, blood or pus), nausea and vomiting and appetite loss. Other symptoms include swollen or numb hands and feet (because of water retention), weakness and lethargy, darkened skin and muscle cramps.

When the kidneys become damaged, other organs suffer as well. Most kidney diseases attack the nephrons, slowly destroying their filtering capacity, over many years, before the damage you even know it. Some kidney diseases, such as polycystic kidney disease are inherited, but the two most common causes of kidney disease are diabetes (diabetic nephropathy) and high blood pressure (hypertension). In diabetes high blood sugar levels damage the nephrons. High blood pressure can prevent the small blood vessels in the kidneys from filtering and cleansing the blood well enough. 

Make the most of your visit to your doctor
Kidney disease progression can be slowed with medicines that protect your kidneys. Your GP can prescribe these medicines which are available through your local pharmacist. When you visit any health provider, remember they are there to advise you on your health so you can make an informed choice. As a patient you have the right to:

  • ask questions about your treatment
  • be informed about details of your care, e.g. costs
  • be informed about treatment options
  • seek a second medical opinion (In some instances doctors advise their patients to seek a second opinion - don't worry about hurting the doctor's feelings if you ask for one)
  • get information from other sources about your condition and its treatment

Key points listed below - for other related information:

Chronic Kidney Disease * How our kidneys work * Informed consent for medical testing 

Using the web to research health Information * What does that word mean? 

What can you do before the visit?

  • Give a written record of your major past medical and surgical events to the doctor on your first visit. Knowing your family’s past medical history is helpful.
  • If you have a chronic illness, consider keeping a record of contact with health professionals in a notepad.
  • Note name and dosage of all medications including ‘over the counter’ drugs, to keep with you at all times - take all bottles and packets with you if that is easier.
  • Make a short list of questions and rank them in order of importance, and add any symptoms or concerns since your last visit.
  • If you don’t know a lot about your condition, try to get some written information. This helps you understand and become familiar with medical terms, so it’s easier to discuss concerns with your doctor.
  • It is not uncommon during the first few visits to your doctor, to be overwhelmed and forget much of what is said. Consider bringing someone with you to your first few visits, especially if English is not your first language - as they can ask questions and discuss your doctor's advice with you afterwards.  

What can you do during the visit
In many instances, your time with your doctor may be limited, so it is helpful to prepare for the visit in advance.

  • Tell the doctor you have some questions.
  • Write down the answers, don’t trust your memory. Most people remember less than half the information they are given. You may wish to ask a family member to record topics discussed.
  • Tell the doctor if you are getting advice or treatment from other health professionals, including complementary therapies, vitamin supplements or herbal treatments.
  • Your doctor should give a clear explanation of your condition, planned treatment, choice of available procedures and a list of possible side effects.
  • Ask the doctor to write names of the drugs you must take and details of any treatments.
  • If you may not be able to follow any instructions tell the doctor immediately to avoid problems later.
  • Before leaving, make sure you have a clear idea of your treatment plan. Ask for any written information that may help you understand your condition.

What questions can you ask the doctor?
Good communication is important and asking questions can make your visit more useful. Remember that writing down questions and making notes about answers can be helpful when reviewing information after your visit. These are sample questions you can ask to get a better understanding of your problem. 

  • Can you describe my condition in simple language?
  • How will this condition affect me in the future?
  • How serious is this condition?
  • What sort of tests will be needed?
  • How good are the tests for diagnosing the problem and the conditions?
  • What sort of treatment will be needed?
  • Why do I need this test, treatment, surgery or procedure?
  • When will I need to start treatment?
  • What is the likely course of this condition?
  • Will I need regular check ups?

What are the benefits of this type of treatment?

  • Are there any risks to this treatment?
  • What is success or failure rate of this treatment?
  • Are there any immediate side effects to this treatment?
  • Does this treatment cause any long-term changes, either physical, social, emotional, mental or sexual?
  • Are there any other treatment choices?
  • What might happen if I don’t have this treatment?
  • What happens if I choose to have no treatment?
  • How long will I have to undergo treatment?
  • What should I expect after treatment?
  • When do I need to decide about my treatment?
  • How much is this treatment going to cost?
  • Are there other health professionals that I need to see?
  • Would complimentary therapies help my health?
  • Do I need to change my lifestyle, e.g. diet, exercise, weight?
  • Is there a dietitian on staff if I have nutritional concerns or difficulties?
  • Do you have any information that I can take with me?
  • Where can I get written information about my illness?

What can you do after the visit?

  • Don’t be afraid to call the doctor between visits with any concerns.
  • Make a list of the advice from the doctor and keep it visible, e.g. on fridge.
  • Trust and respect is important in any doctor/ patient relationship. If you don’t feel comfortable with your doctor's advice, it may be worth getting another opinion.
  • Follow the doctors’ suggestions - remember, you are responsible for your well being. 

What about alternative and complementary therapies?

Complementary therapies include a wide range of healing approaches. They may be supportive to improve well-being and quality of life for people with chronic conditions or terminal illness. These therapies may include meditation, massage, visualisation, aromatherapy, acupuncture, to name a few. Some health professionals see these therapies as useful. However, many have not been tested in clinical trials in relation to kidney disease.

Herbal treatments sometimes claim they may cure or slow down disease progression, but some are harmful to people with kidney disease. Again, few clinical trials have been undertaken to prove claims, although this is slowly changing. Always speak with your health team before using any herbal remedies, over-the-counter-medicines or supplements. You must let your health team know if you are using complimentary or herbal therapies.

When deciding on complementary or herbal treatments it is very important to gather as much information as possible. Ask as many questions as possible so that you are able to clearly understand the treatments and possible outcomes in relation to kidney disease.

Ring NPS - Medicine Line 1300 633 424 (1300 MEDICINE)
For independent pharmacist advice on prescriptions, over-the-counter and complementary (herbal/natural/vitamin/mineral) medicines. Sometimes medicines have unexpected and undesirable side effects. The Adverse Medicines Events Line provides consumers with a path for reporting and discussing adverse experiences with medicines.

Quick links: Kidney Health Resources - Organ Donation

Page updated 25 March 2014
Disclaimer: Information provided is intended as an introduction to this topic and not meant to substitute for your doctor's or health professional's advice. All care is taken to ensure this information is relevant and applicable to each Australian state. Kidney Health Australia recognises each person's experience is individual and variations do occur in treatment and management due to personal circumstances. Consult a healthcare professional for specific treatment recommendations.

  The material contained on this site does not constitute medical advice. It is intended for information purposes only. Published by Kidney Health Australia. Privacy Policy. For information about website content please contact the National Communications Manager.

© 2008 Kidney Health Australia

Last updated: Oct 2014.