is a specialty of medicine and pediatric medicine focused on the kidneys, specifically normal kidney function and kidney disease, the preservation of kidney health, and the treatment of kidney disease, from diet and medication to renal replacement therapy (dialysis and kidney transplantation).
Nephrology also studies systemic conditions that affect the kidneys, such as diabetes and autoimmune disease; and systemic diseases that occur as a result of kidney disease, such as renal osteodystrophy and hypertension. A physician who has undertaken additional training and become certified in nephrology is called a nephrologist.
Treatments in nephrology can include medications, blood products, surgical interventions (urology, vascular or surgical procedures), renal replacement therapy (dialysis or kidney transplantation) and plasma exchange. Kidney problems can have significant impact on quality and length of life, and so psychological support, health education and advanced care planning play key roles in nephrology.
Chronic kidney disease is typically managed with treatment of causative conditions (such as diabetes), avoidance of substances toxic to the kidneys (nephrotoxins like radiologic contrast and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), antihypertensives, diet and weight modification and planning for end-stage kidney failure. Impaired kidney function has systemic effects on the body. An erythropoetin stimulating agent (ESA) may be required to ensure adequate production of red blood cells, activated vitamin D supplements and phosphate binders may be required to counteract the effects of kidney failure on bone metabolism, and blood volume and electrolyte disturbance may need correction. Diuretics (such as furosemide) may be used to correct fluid overload, and alkalis (such as sodium bicarbonate) can be used to treat metabolic acidosis.
Auto-immune and inflammatory kidney disease, such as vasculitis or transplant rejection, may be treated with immunosuppression. Commonly used agents are prednisone, mycophenolate, cyclophosphamide, ciclosporin, tacrolimus, everolimus, thymoglobulin and sirolimus. Newer, so-called “biologic drugs” or monoclonal antibodies, are also used in these conditions and include rituximab, basiliximab and eculizumab. Blood products including intravenous immunoglobulin and a process known as plasma exchange can also be employed.
When the kidneys are no longer able to sustain the demands of the body, end-stage kidney failure is said to have occurred. Without renal replacement therapy, death from kidney failure will eventually result. Dialysis is an artificial method of replacing some kidney function to prolong life. Renal transplantation replaces kidney function by inserting into the body a healthier kidney from an organ donor and inducing immunologic tolerance of that organ with immunosuppression. At present, renal transplantation is the most effective treatment for end-stage kidney failure although its worldwide availability is limited by lack of availability of donor organs. Generally speaking, kidneys from living donors are ‘better’ than those from deceased donors, as they last longer.