What is Renal Physiology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2019
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Renal physiology is a discipline which involves the study of the function of the kidneys. Nephrologists, doctors who specialize in the kidneys, study renal physiology during their time in medical school, and an understanding of kidney function is also important to many nurses and doctors. Knowing how the kidneys work can help people identify problems with the kidney and address kidney function issues in their early stages.

Kidney physiology, as this field is also known, includes the study of all of the functions of the kidneys, from the time that fluids enter the kidneys to the moment that they are expressed. The kidneys use filtration, absorption, and secretion to manage a variety of systems within the body. They regulate the body's blood pressure, fluid balance, and balance of salts, and the kidneys also produce hormones which trigger various physiological responses.


The study of renal physiology usually focuses on the nephron, the smallest individual unit in the kidney. Each kidney contains numerous nephrons, with each nephron acting as a complete filtration and processing system which contributes to overall kidney function. As fluids pass along the nephron, the kidneys can selectively absorb or secrete, depending on the needs of the body. Someone who is dehydrated, for example, will have nephrons which retain water for the body, rather than allowing it to pass by, while someone who has just consumed a lot of water will have kidneys which retain salts to keep the balance of salts in the body stable.

In the process of learning about renal physiology, people usually study the anatomy of the kidneys and the interconnected systems, such as the bladder. Students also learn about tools which can be used to assess kidney function, including urine and blood tests and medical imaging studies. These tests can be used to identify problems with kidney function such as abnormal levels of hormones or unusually dilute urine, and the tests can be used to guide treatment of someone with a kidney problem.

In addition to learning about the functions of normal healthy kidneys and diseased kidneys, people who study renal physiology also learn about artificial kidneys and hemodialysis machines, the equipment used to take over kidney function for people who have kidneys which are so badly damaged that they cannot function. The study of renal function can also include study of kidney transplants and how they impact the body, in addition to the study of living kidney donors, people who give up a kidney for someone else, living with one kidney for the rest of their lives.


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