Living with One Kidney

The kidney is a unique anatomical structure that has many different jobs in the human body. Although most people go through life with 2 functional kidneys, it is possible to continue living with only one functional kidney. The kidney is capable of enlarging to increase its capacity in the event that an individual is born with only a single kidney, experiences kidney failure, or has a kidney removed. Those who suffer from end stage renal failure in both kidneys cannot survive without dialysis treatment or a transplant.

Health Conditions that Result in a Single Kidney


There are many reasons why an individual may end up with only one functional kidney. A condition known as renal agenesis occurs when one or both of the kidneys fail to develop before birth. Infants that are born without a single functional kidney often die within a few hours of being delivered. In most cases, those who suffer from renal agenesis are born with at least one functional kidney and are able to enjoy life living with one kidney. Although unilateral renal agenesis does not lead to serious health consequences, some females are born sterile and all adults are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure.

As with all organs, the possibility of losing a kidney can occur when cancer develops within the tissue. The most common type of kidney cancer is referred to as renal cell carcinoma and is responsible for 80% of kidney cancer cases. Renal cell carcinoma can be very aggressive and usually requires that the affected kidney be removed before the cancer has been allowed to spread to other parts of the body. The survival rate for patients with renal cell carcinoma drops dramatically once the cancer has been given the opportunity to spread throughout the body. There are many other types of cancer that can result in individuals being forced to continue living with one kidney.

Other situations that may require the removal of a kidney include renal injury or donation. Any type of traumatic event including car accidents, sporting injuries, occupational mishaps, and others can cause damage to one or both kidneys and result in the need to remove the kidney to protect the health of the patient. Individuals who have elected to become organ donors may have a kidney removed in order to help someone else survive. Kidney donation requires that donors have a second healthy kidney that can compensate for the one that has been removed. Transplanted kidneys also have the ability to enlarge inside the recipient’s body in order to compensate for the lack of an additional kidney.

Possible Complications

Although most people who are living with one kidney are able to enjoy a happy and healthy life, some individuals do experience complications associated with the lack of two functional kidneys. High blood pressure is more common in those who have only one kidney, but usually takes many years to develop. Kidney function may also decline more rapidly with age in individuals who have a single kidney. While this may be concerning for some, it usually does not impair an individual’s ability to live a long and healthy life. In fact, those who have only one kidney generally have the same life span as individuals who have two functional kidneys.

Special Considerations

In most cases, those who are living with one kidney can follow the same general health advice that is given to individuals who have two kidneys. This includes regular office visits with a physician who checks blood pressure and who performs urine and blood tests. Unless there are abnormal results that are found during the annual exam, an individual probably has little to worry about. The only other important consideration is the involvement in sports and physical activity. Doctors often recommend that patients who have only one kidney avoid contact sports such as football, soccer, and wrestling. These types of sports have the potential for damaging the one functional kidney and can result in the need for long-term dialysis treatment or a transplant in the event that the kidney does become injured.


In general, there is very little impact on an individual’s ability to carry out a normal life when living with one kidney. Although most people have 2 kidneys, conditions such as renal cancer, injury, or donation may cause much concern over one’s ability to continue enjoying life. Fortunately, people living with one kidney are still able to appreciate the things in life they have come to love. For optimal health outcomes, patients should schedule regular doctor’s visits and practice common sense when engaging in sports.

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