Polycystic kidney disease (also called PKD) causes numerous cysts to grow in the kidneys. These cysts are filled with fluid. If too many cysts grow or if they get too big, the kidneys can become damaged. PKD cysts can slowly replace much of the kidneys, reducing kidney function and leading to kidney failure.
In the United States about 600,000 people have PKD. It is the fourth leading cause of kidney failure. If is found in all races and occurs equally in men and women. It causes about 5% of all kidney failure. PKD can affect other organs besides the kidney. People with PKD may have cysts in their liver, pancreas, spleen, ovaries, and large bowel. Cysts in these organs usually do not cause serious problems, but can in some people. PKD can also affect the brain or heart. If PKD affects the brain, it can cause an aneurysm. An aneurysm is a bulging blood vessel that can burst, resulting in a stroke or even death. If PKD affects the heart, the valves can become floppy, resulting in a heart murmur in some patients.
Most people do not develop symptoms until they are 30 to 40 years old. The first noticeable signs and symptoms may include:
- Back or side pain
- An increase in the size of the abdomen
- Blood in the urine
- Frequent bladder or kidney infections
- High blood pressure
High blood pressure is the most common sign of PKD. Occasionally, patients may develop headaches related to high blood pressure or their doctors may detect high blood pressure during a routine physical exam. Because high blood pressure can cause kidney damage, it is very important to treat it. In fact, treatment of high blood pressure can help slow or even prevent kidney failure.
- Fluttering or pounding in the chest
About 25% of PKD patients have a so-called floppy valve in the heart, and may experience a fluttering or pounding in the chest as well as chest pain. These symptoms almost always disappear on their own but may be the first hint that someone has PKD.
Ultrasound is the most reliable, inexpensive and non-invasive way to diagnose PKD. If someone at risk for PKD is older than 30 years and has a normal ultrasound of the kidneys, he or she probably does not have PKD. Occasionally, a CT scan (computed tomography scan) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may detect smaller cysts that cannot be found by an ultrasound. MRI is used to measure and monitor volume and growth of kidneys and cysts.
PKD is a very active area of research at present. This is a very exciting time in the field and there are several ongoing trials for new treatments.