TCM and Chronic Kidney Disease

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One of the most serious, and frequently overlooked, illnesses we face today is called CKD: chronic kidney disease, or chronic renal disease. This disease is the result of loss of kidney function over a period of months or years. The symptoms of CKD are non-specific and often go unnoticed until there is near to complete loss of kidney function. At that point, treatments are limited to dialysis or to a kidney transplant.

In the early stages of this disease there may be no symptoms, as major loss of function takes months, even years, to occur. It can be so slow in the body that definitive symptoms will not be recognized until the kidneys are functioning at one-tenth the normal level.

Another reason the symptoms of kidney disease can be misunderstood by physicians is that they mirror the symptomology of other illnesses.  Some of the more common signs of early kidney distress can include loss of appetite, general malaise, headaches, itching and dry skin, nausea, and unintentional weight loss.  As the condition develops and worsens, new symptoms can present themselves: abnormally light or dark skin, bone pain, and brain and nervous system issues: confusion, concentration issues,  numbness in the feet, hands or other areas, muscle twitching, foul breath, easy bruising, bleeding, or blood in the stool, excessive thirst, frequent hiccups, low level of sexual interest and impotence, menstrual periods stop, shortness of breath, sleep problems (insomnia, restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea) and swelling of the feet and hands.

Failure of the kidneys to remove excess fluid from the body is responsible for swelling of the extremities, and can cause fluid to build up in the lungs, resulting in shortness of breath. Western medical treatments for CKD are usually limited to the prescribing of high blood pressure medications known as ACE inhibitors or Angiotensin II blockers. These do not stop the progression of the disease, they merely slow the progress. Most of the efforts in western medicine are focused on labeling the disease, treating the symptoms and giving a prognosis- which is typically not good. There is currently no effective treatment available.

The main problem with this equation is the inability to catch the disease in its early stages. Chinese Medicine places enormous emphasis on the kidneys and their continued ability to function as filters for the body. There are entire schools of thought in East Asian medicine that recognize the kidneys as the most important organ in the body, more important even than the heart.  With such a trained and constant focus on the kidneys, these oft-overlooked organs are regularly monitored for signs of distress. Chinese herbal medicine devotes a great deal of effort to ensuring the kidney is functioning properly, especially in patients over 40 years of age. It is not uncommon for Chinese herbal formulas to include at least 10% of its herbal ingredients to specifically ensure kidney health.

Many of the early symptoms of kidney dysfunction are recognizable through Chinese medical practices and are treated rather well. At this early point of diagnosis, small issues can be identified, treated, and a later crises of total kidney failure can be avoided. If a patient is using Chinese Medicine as their main health modality it would be rare for an individual to end up with CKD. The reason is simply due to the exalted state the kidney holds in Chinese Medicine and the great deal of energy devoted to keeping the kidneys strong and vibrant.

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