When you suffer from chronic kidney disease, the organs become damaged and aren’t able to filter blood as they normally would. Waste products can then build up in your body, and protein can leak into your urine. This causes symptoms that manifest in different parts of your body—and doctors say paying attention to your hands and feet can help you spot one particular sign of potential kidney trouble. Read on to find out what to watch for, and why this symptom could wreak havoc on your health.
Minor swelling happens to all of us, and doesn’t necessarily indicate a deeper health issue. However, Johns Hopkins experts warn that if your swelling is concentrated around the eyes, hands, and feet, it could be the result of nephrotic syndrome, a condition resulting from kidney disease.
Nephrotic syndrome occurs when tiny blood vessels in the kidneys, known as glomeruli, become scarred or damaged due to kidney disease. Because these vessels are responsible for filtering waste and excess water from the blood into urine, this damage can cause too much protein to drain from the body as you urinate. “Healthy kidneys allow less than one gram of protein to spill into the urine in a day. In nephrotic syndrome, the glomeruli let three grams or more of protein to leak into the urine during a 24-hour period,” according to experts at Johns Hopkins. They say your doctor may be able to help you determine whether your kidneys are filtering protein properly.
“Protein in the urine is an early sign that the kidneys’ filters have been damaged, allowing protein to leak into the urine,” explains the National Kidney Foundation (NKF). “This puffiness around your eyes can be due to the fact that your kidneys are leaking a large amount of protein in the urine, rather than keeping it in the body.”
While kidney disease can cause your body to leak protein, it can also cause it to retain excess sodium, says the NKF. This can lead to swelling—particularly in the hands, feet, or ankles.
This can have potentially serious health consequences over time, experts say. According to Medscape, “As kidney function declines further, sodium retention and extracellular volume expansion lead to peripheral edema and, not uncommonly, pulmonary edema and hypertension.” In other words, what began as swelling in the hands or feet can ultimately result in a dangerous buildup of fluid in the lungs, or high blood pressure.
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While swelling in your hands, feet, or eyes certainly warrants a call to your doctor, swelling in the feet alone is not a definitive sign of kidney disease. “Swelling in the lower extremities can also be a sign of heart disease, liver disease, and chronic leg vein problems,” writes the National Kidney Foundation (NKF). And swelling of the hands and feet is also associated with lymphatic system disorders, thyroid disorders, blood clots, pregnancy, and more.
Experts add that peripheral edema can also be caused by behavioral or environmental factors. For instance, some people experience temporary swelling in the lower extremities after standing or sitting for too long. Allergies or dietary changes can also be the culprit behind swelling. If this is the case, the condition may resolve on its own.
If kidney disease is the reason for your swelling, you may experience additional symptoms. However, Joseph Vassalotti, Chief Medical Officer at the NKF, says you’re less likely to experience symptoms until the very late stages of the disease when the kidneys are already failing or when there are large amounts of protein in the urine. “This is one of the reasons why only 10 percent of people with chronic kidney disease know that they have it,” he explains on the NKF site.
Possible symptoms of kidney disease include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, dry or itchy skin, frequent urination, urine that produces blood or foam, poor appetite, or muscle cramping, says the NKF. However, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) urges that “testing may be the only way to know if you have kidney disease. Get checked if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or a family history of kidney failure,” all of which put you at higher risk of kidney disease.
Speak with your doctor if you notice any symptoms of kidney disease—especially if they occur in conjunction with swelling in the eyes, hands, or feet. “The sooner you know you have kidney disease, the sooner you can get treatment,” the NIDDK advises.