84. Acute renal failure

Page created on May 3, 2021. Not updated since.

Definition and epidemiology

The condition is nowadays called acute kidney injury (AKI) rather than acute renal failure.

Acute kidney injury is a clinical syndrome which is characterised by an acute decrease in GFR (over hours or days), as evidenced by elevated creatinine. There may also be accumulation of urinary waste products and oliguria/anuria, but not always.


AKI is classified according to the underlying cause, whether it’s a prerenal cause, a renal cause, or a postrenal cause. However, there are usually multiple factors involved.

  • Prerenal AKI
    • Hypovolaemia/hypotension
    • Decreased RBF (heart failure, renal artery stenosis)
    • Abnormal kidney haemodynamics (sepsis, hepatorenal syndrome)
  • Renal AKI
    • Tubulointerstitial disorders
      • Acute ischaemic/toxic tubular necrosis
      • Acute tubulointerstitial nephritis
    • Glomerulonephritis
    • Thrombotic microangiopathies (TTP/HUS)
    • Obstruction of tubules
      • Myeloma proteins
      • Crystals
  • Postrenal AKI
    • Benign prostate hyperplasia
    • Stone
    • Prostate cancer
    • Gynaecological cancer

Of these, the prerenal causes are the most common, followed by acute tubular necrosis.

Drugs which can cause AKI (by various mechanisms) are most commonly NSAIDs and RAAS inhibitors.

Chronic kidney disease is the strongest risk factor for AKI. If a person with CKD develops AKI, the condition is called acute-on-chronic AKI.

Clinical features

Oliguria is the most common symptom, but in many cases it’s asymptomatic. There may be symptoms of the underlying cause, or symptoms of uraemia (see next topic).

Diagnosis and evaluation

Normal range serum creatinine 60 – 100 µmol/L.

In the evaluation of AKI, the estimated GFR (eGFR) can not be used to evaluate the kidney function. The serum creatinine must be used instead. AKI is the only condition in which we use serum creatinine to monitor kidney function rather than eGFR.

During the evaluation of a person with acute kidney injury, it’s important to answer these 5 questions:

  • Is it really AKI, or is it CKD or acute-on-chronic?
    • Is this really an acute loss of kidney function or is this a recently discovered CKD?
    • Did the patient already have decreased GFR and this is just a worsening?
  • Is there a prerenal cause?
  • Is there a postrenal cause?
  • Is there a renal artery occlusion?
  • Is there a renoparenchymal disease?

Patient history, physical examination, previous kidney function tests, and ultrasound can help answer these questions. An AKI kidney has normal morphology, as opposed to a CKD kidney. A renal cause usually has abnormal urine analysis. A postrenal cause can have a palpable bladder, or obstruction or pyelectasis can be visible on US. Allergic symptoms can suggest nephritis. Low BP can suggest hypovolaemia.

The urea:creatinine ratio may be useful in finding the cause. A high ratio (> 20:1) suggests a prerenal cause, while a lower ratio (< 20:1) suggests a renal cause.

If the cause remains unclear despite these investigations, a renal biopsy may be required.


Treating the underlying cause is essential, as well as correcting any severe electrolyte disorders.

If there is hypervolaemia, a loop diuretic may be used.

If there are indications for it, renal replacement therapy may be used.


In many cases patients make a full recovery, but AKI can progress to chronic kidney disease as well. It might take months for kidney functions to recover completely, during which the patient may experience polyuria because the tubules need a long time to recover.


Acute kidney injury refers to an acute rise of serum creatinine, in most cases with oliguria. It may be prerenal, renal, or postrenal, but the most common causes are prerenal and acute tubular necrosis. During the evaluation it’s important to determine whether it’s really acute or chronic, and to determine the underlying cause. Management includes treating the cause and correcting severe electrolyte disturbances. In some cases, renal replacement therapy may be required.

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