The Structure and Function of the Kidneys

It is hard to understand the signs and symptoms of kidney disease unless we appreciate the kidneys’ role in our body. This article explains what the kidneys do and how they accomplish their function.

Male kidney anatomy, illustration

Clarifying the Terms: Renal? Nephrology?

Let’s get the grammar straightened out at the outset. You might have heard the terms “renal,” “nephrological,” or others when you hear physicians talking about kidneys. The term “renal” is used interchangeably to refer to anything to do with the kidneys. The word comes from the Latin word for the kidneys, renes.

Similarly, “nephros” is the Greek term for the kidneys, while “logos” refers to study. Hence, nephrology is the subspecialty of medicine that deals with the management of kidney diseases, and nephrologists are specialist physicians who deal with the medical management of kidney disease, kidney transplantation, and hypertension.

What Are the Kidneys?

A pair of bean-shaped organs, the kidneys sit in the flanks, closer to the spine than to your belly. They are located just underneath your diaphragm and rib cage. They normally range in size from 8 to 14 centimeters (or 3 to 5.5 inches). Each kidney weighs between 120 grams (about a quarter-pound) to 170 grams (0.4 lbs). These numbers vary based on a person’s size, and abnormal-sized kidneys could be a sign of kidney disease.About 380 gallons (1,440 liters) of blood flow through the kidneys every day.

What the Kidneys Do

Your kidneys are silent workhorses, toiling 24/7 to clean your blood of impurities and toxins that build up from the body's metabolism. This waste fluid, which we know better as urine, is then excreted. However, the kidneys’ role extends to well beyond just “making urine.” They are your body’s very own laboratories that “test” your blood continuously to make sure every electrolyte’s concentration is within the specific range that is necessary for your body to function.

As an example, let’s consider an electrolyte in your blood, like potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte whose concentration needs to be within a tight range for your heart to generate its normal electric impulses. These impulses cause the heart to beat at a set rhythm or pulse. Both high or low potassium can interfere with this electricity generation and cause your heart to go into an abnormal rhythm. This abnormal rhythm, called arrhythmia, is life-threatening and could cause a person to drop dead in a matter of seconds. However, this does not happen in normal circumstances, because the moment the kidneys detect a rise in the blood’s potassium concentration, they dump the extra potassium into urine, thus keeping the potassium level constant in the blood. If it weren't for your kidneys, a typical meal that you eat could turn out to be a life-endangering experience owing to its potassium content.

Another important function that the kidneys have is maintaining the blood’s water concentration. The kidneys accomplish this by conserving or excreting the amount of water in your blood. You might have noticed that if you spend a day, for example, playing golf under a hot sun without drinking enough water, your urine will tend to look dark and concentrated.

Conversely, if it’s cold outside, the amount of water lost in sweat is greatly reduced, and your urine looks clear. The volume of urine goes up as well. These changes in your urine’s concentration and volume are regulated by your kidneys. The kidneys’ ability to make these changes is one of the reasons that life was able to adapt from the oceans to land, eons ago.

Here are some other functions the kidneys serve:

  • They produce a hormone that is essential to make red blood cells, called “erythropoietin”
  • They make sure your bones stay healthy by producing a form of vitamin D
  • They dump excess acid, which is generated from normal metabolism, out from your system
  • Very importantly, they control your blood pressure

As you might imagine, all of these functions can go haywire in kidney disease, hence leading to the usual signs and symptoms that one sees in patients with kidney dysfunction.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. El-Reshaid W, Abdul-Fattah H. Sonographic assessment of renal size in healthy adults. Med Princ Pract. 2014;23(5):432-436. doi: 10.1159/000364876

  2. Skogestad J, Aronsen JM. Hypokalemia-induced arrhythmias and heart failure: new insights and implications for therapy. Front Physiol. 2018;0.

  3. Belasco R, Edwards T, Munoz AJ, Rayo V, Buono MJ. The effect of hydration on urine color objectively evaluated in cie l*a*b* color space. Front Nutr. 2020;7:576974. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2020.576974

  4. Shih HM, Wu CJ, Lin SL. Physiology and pathophysiology of renal erythropoietin-producing cells. Journal of the Formosan Medical Association. 2018;117(11):955-963. doi: 10.1016/j.jfma.2018.03.017

  5. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Mineral & Bone Disorder in Chronic Kidney Disease.

  6. National Kidney Foundation. Facts about Metabolic Acidosis and Chronic Kidney Disease.

  7. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. High Blood Pressure & Kidney Disease.

Additional Reading
  • Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology.

By Veeraish Chauhan, MD
Veeraish Chauhan, MD, FACP, FASN, is a board-certified nephrologist who treats patients with kidney diseases and related conditions.