What is a Solitary Kidney?

The kidneys are vital organs, which means they are essential to survival. They perform a number of functions that are necessary to keep a person healthy and alive.

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Some of the main functions of the kidneys include:

  • Filtering waste and excess fluids from the blood
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Producing hormones required to keep the bones strong and the blood healthy
  • Maintaining the balance of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and phosphate

Solitary kidney

Most individuals are born with two kidneys, which are located below the rib cage on each side of the spine. However, sometimes people are born with only one kidney or have only one kidney that functions. When this is the case, the term “solitary kidney” is used.

Living with one kidney

Causes

The three main reasons a person may have a solitary kidney can include a birth defect, surgical removal of a kidney, or a previous kidney donation.

Birth defect

Kidney agenesis is a condition where a baby is born with only one kidney. Comparatively, individuals who are born with kidney dysplasia have two kidneys, but only one of of which is functional.

Since a person can generally live a normal healthy life with just one kidney, people with these conditions often do not realize they have a solitary kidney until they have a test such as an X-ray or ultrasound for another reason.

Surgical removal

Some individuals require a kidney to be removed as a result of disease or injury. When the kidney is removed due to cancer or another condition, the kidney and the ureter are removed.

Kidney donation

An increasing number of people are choosing to donate a kidney for transplantation to a family member or friend who has kidney failure.

Complications

Generally, people with only one kidney can lead a healthy and full life, although it is important that they maintain a healthy lifestyle to protect the kidney that they do have.

However, some people are at an increased risk of some kidney function loss later on in life. Some other problems can also eventually arise, which include high blood pressure, proteinuria, and reduced glomerular filtration rate (GFR).

High blood pressure

The kidneys are involved in maintaining healthy blood pressure by controlling the amount of fluid that flows through the blood. The kidneys also maintain blood pressure levels by producing a hormone called renin, which is involved in the expansion and contraction of blood vessels. Many people with a solitary kidney develop slightly elevated blood pressure.

Proteinuria

Proteinuria describes an excess of protein in the urine, which can indicate kidney damage. People with a solitary kidney often have above-average levels of protein in their urine.

Reduced GFR

The kidneys contain millions of tiny filtering tubes called nephrons. The first part of a nephron is the glomerulus, which strains blood cells and molecules from toxins and fluids. This is referred to as the GFR and measuring it provides an indicator of how well the kidneys are functioning. People who have only one kidney often have a reduced GFR.

Monitoring

People with a solitary kidney should have their kidney function checked on a regular basis at least once a year. Healthcare providers check this with the help of routine urine and blood tests and blood pressure monitoring.

References

Further Reading

Last Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.

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