Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;71(1):137-138

What do the kidneys do?

Kidneys remove waste products from your blood. They do this by filtering the blood and making urine. The urine carries waste products out of your body.

What is polycystic kidney disease?

Polycystic kidney disease (also called PKD) tends to run in families. Sacs of fluid (called cysts) grow in the kidneys. They are like little water balloons. If too many cysts grow or if they get too big, the kidneys are damaged. The cysts may be painful or get infected.

Children of persons with PKD have a 50 percent chance of getting the disease.

How will PKD affect me?

Most people with PKD can lead a normal life. Many people with PKD have only small health problems. About three out of five people with PKD get high blood pressure, which can be treated with medicine. In some people, though, PKD can cause kidney failure. About one half of people with PKD have kidney failure by age 60. These people may need to have dialysis (blood filtering by a machine) or a kidney transplant. PKD is usually worse in men, blacks, and people with sickle cell disease. There also is a childhood form of PKD that is usually more severe than the kind that adults get.

Can other organs be hurt by PKD?

People with PKD may have cysts in their liver. These cysts usually do not cause serious problems. PKD also can cause problems with the heart, brain, intestines, pancreas, ovaries, and spleen. If PKD affects the brain, it can cause an aneurysm (say: ann-yur-iz-em). This is a bulging blood vessel that can explode).

What are the symptoms of PKD?

The most common symptom of PKD is high blood pressure. Other symptoms are:

  • Pain in the back and side

  • Blood in the urine

  • Frequent kidney infections

How can my doctor tell I have PKD?

Most people with PKD start having symptoms during middle age. If you have symptoms of PKD or if you are at risk for the disease, your doctor may want you to have an ultrasound test to look at your kidneys. An ultrasound test makes a picture of your organs by passing sound waves through your body. This kind of test can show if you have cysts in your kidneys. Your doctor also may want you to have a test called a CT scan (this stands for computed tomography) to look for cysts in your kidneys.

Who should be checked for PKD?

If one of your parents has PKD, ask your doctor if you should have an ultrasound test of your kidneys. If you have PKD and you have a relative who has had a brain aneurysm, your doctor may want you to have a CT scan or another test called an MRI (this stands for magnetic resonance imaging) of your brain. MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to make a picture of your brain. If you are at high risk of an aneurysm, your doctor might want you to have a CT scan or MRI every five years to find an aneurysm before it causes problems.

Is there treatment for PKD?

There is no way to treat cysts caused by PKD. If the cysts cause health problems, your doctor can treat your symptoms so you will be more comfortable.

Can PKD be diagnosed in unborn babies?

Yes. PKD can be diagnosed in unborn babies with a test called amniocentesis (say: am-nee-oh-sen-tee-siss). This is a test of the fluid that surrounds the baby inside the uterus. Another test your doctor can use is called chorionic villus sampling (say: core-ee-on-ik vill-us). This is a test of a small piece of the placenta. If you have PKD and you are pregnant, talk with your doctor about these tests.

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