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Treating Autosomal Dominant Polycystic Kidney Disease

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8 Risks of Untreated Autosomal Dominant Polycystic Kidney Disease

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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It’s estimated that 1 in every 500 to 1000 people have autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease, or ADPKD. This condition is typically passed down through families by way of a mutated gene and causes clusters of cysts to grow in your kidneys. Over time, the cysts can damage your kidneys and decrease their ability to function. ADPKD can also affect other organs of your body. If left untreated, it can lead to significant problems.

There is currently no cure for ADPKD. But since the disease tends to gradually get worse, treatment can slow its progression and may decrease the risk of some of the most serious complications. Make sure you’re working with your nephrologist to manage your disease and avoid the following issues.

1. High Blood Pressure

One of your kidneys’ jobs is to help regulate your blood pressure and keep it at healthy levels. However, if you have ADPKD, the cysts in your kidneys can disrupt your kidneys’ ability to do this job. With ADPKD, enzymes are released that cause your blood vessels to constrict and your blood pressure to increase. This is often seen early on in the disease. Uncontrolled high blood pressure puts an extra strain on your heart and blood vessels, raising your risk of heart attack or stroke.

2. Kidney Failure

As cysts enlarge, they replace normal tissue, interfering with your kidneys’ ability to remove waste products from your blood. Damaged blood vessels from high blood pressure can further contribute to this. Eventually, your kidneys may fail and you’ll require a kidney transplant or dialysis. More than half of the cases of ADPKD will advance to kidney failure, but this can be slowed down with the right strategies.

3. Heart Problems

High blood pressure increases your chances of developing heart disease. Left ventricular hypertrophy, a muscle wall thickening in one of the chambers of the heart, is commonly seen in patients with ADPKD. Also, mitral valve prolapse occurs in up to 25% of those with ADPKD. With this condition, a valve in your heart doesn’t close fully, allowing blood to leak the wrong way. It can cause heart palpitations or a heart murmur. In rare cases, medication or surgery may be required. 

4. Brain Aneurysm

Having ADPKD places you at a higher risk of having a brain aneurysm, which is a bulging of a blood vessel in your brain. Though the risk remains low, if an aneurysm bursts, it causes bleeding into the brain and can be fatal. The likelihood is higher if you have a family history of brain aneurysms. In such situations, your doctor may recommend that you get screened regularly to detect it early.

5. Digestive Problems

With PKD, small pouches may develop in your large intestine, a condition known as diverticulosis. If these areas become infected, it’s called diverticulitis. This can cause pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Being on dialysis may place you at higher risk.

6. Pregnancy Complications

Women who have ADPKD have an increased chance of developing preeclampsia during pregnancy, a condition in which blood pressure increases significantly. Preeclampsia is even more likely if you already had high blood pressure. Without proper treatment, preeclampsia may have serious consequences for both the mother and unborn child.

7. Cysts in Other Organs

ADPKD can cause cysts to grow in organs other than the kidneys, such as the pancreas and spleen, and more commonly, the liver. They often cause no serious problems, but can lead to feelings of fullness, discomfort, or pain. Women appear to be more affected by liver cysts than men.

8. Abdominal Hernias

Nearly half of people with ADPKD may develop a hernia, a protrusion of an organ through a weak spot in the abdominal wall. Small hernias may resolve on their own, but larger hernias may require surgical repair.

Treatments for ADPKD

Talk to your doctor about how you can lower your risk of complications and help preserve your kidney function if you have ADPKD. One medication, tolvaptan (Jynarque), is available as a treatment for rapidly progressing ADPKD. It’s taken as a pill twice a day and blocks a substance in your body that contributes to the growth of cysts.

Controlling high blood pressure is a huge priority. Blood pressure medications, such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs), may be prescribed. Lifestyle modifications can also lower high blood pressure. This includes eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, and reducing stress.

When kidney failure occurs, either dialysis or a kidney transplant will be needed to prevent fluid and waste products from building up to dangerous levels in your body.

Living with a chronic illness like ADPKD can be challenging, but your doctor can help you find the right treatment and make healthy lifestyle changes to best control your disease.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 8
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