Solitary Kidney - Living With One Kidney

Can People Live With Only One Kidney?

Most people have two kidneys, one on each side of the spinal column just below the rib cage. The kidney, about the size of a fist, contains about 1 million nephrons—the tiny filtering units of the kidney. They help in taking out wastes and excess water from the blood and put it in the urine to be excreted out of the body.

Some people may have only one kidney. However, most people with one (solitary) kidney can live normal, healthy lives. Reasons why a person may have only one kidney include:

  • Birth defects such as renal agenesis and renal dysplasia. The word “renal” means something related to or pertaining to the kidneys. Renal agenesis is a condition in which the person is born with only one kidney. A birth defect that causes one kidney to be unable to normally function is called renal dysplasia. People with renal agenesis or renal dysplasia may not know they have it because they do not feel any symptoms. In fact, the doctor may notice these abnormalities while performing tests for other health problems.

  • One kidney removed because of cancer or other diseases or injuries. Nephrectomy is the operation done to remove the kidney.
  • The person has donated one of his or her kidney to be transplanted to another person.
Though a person can survive with one normal kidney, it is still important to take precautions to protect it from possible complications or damage.

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Changes Occurring with One Kidney

People living with one kidney may not notice that changes in his or her kidney are already occurring. Changes that may result from having a single kidney may include the following:
High blood pressure. Many people who lose or donate a kidney are found to have an elevated blood pressure after several years.

Proteinuria. People living with one kidney for several years are often found to have higher levels of protein in their urine. Proteinuria, a condition where there is excessive protein in the urine, may be a sign of a damaged kidney.

A decline in GFR. The glomerular filtration rate (GFR) indicates how well the kidneys are working in removing wastes from the blood. People with one kidney may have reduced GFR, which indicates kidney damage.
A person may have these conditions and still feel fine. But these conditions should be regularly monitored for any changes that might possibly occur.

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Protecting the remaining kidney.

Possible kidney damage may occur if symptoms remain unnoticed and untreated. You can do your part in preventing these complications by:
  • Having your blood pressure monitored regularly and keeping it under control.

  • Having your urine tested for protein. When high levels of protein are found in your urine, it may mean that damage to your kidneys has occurred.

  • Having your GFR measured.

  • Following a healthy eating plan. Choose fruits, vegetables, grains, and low-fat dairy products. Limit your daily salt (sodium) intake if your already have high blood pressure. You should limit your alcohol and caffeine intake as well.

  • Avoid high-protein diets. Excessive protein intake can put extra burden on the remaining kidney. But don’t completely eliminate protein in your diet. Eating moderate amounts of protein is still important for proper nutrition. A dietitian can help develop a healthy eating plan for you.

  • Avoiding injury. Try to avoid high-contact sports such as boxing, football, and hockey. However, having a solitary kidney should not automatically disqualify you from sports participation. Some athletes with one working kidney even have participated in sports competitions at the highest levels. One study pointed out that motor vehicle and bike riding accidents were more likely to seriously damage the kidneys than sports injuries.

    Children should be encouraged to engage in some form of physical activity. Wearing protective gears like padded vests worn under a uniform may make limited contact sports such as basketball or soccer safe.

    ***You should consider the risks of any activity and decide whether the benefits outweigh those risks.

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National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Your Kidneys and How They Work. National Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD. NIH Publication No. 07–3195, August 2007. Available at http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/yourkidneys/index.htm. Accessed July 2008

National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Solitary Kidney. National Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD. NIH Publication No. 07–5390 July 2007. Available at http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/solitarykidney/index.htm. Accessed July 2008

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This Page Last Revised: January 2011

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