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Diabetic Nephropathy

By

Frank O'Brien

, MD, Washington University in St. Louis

Last full review/revision Jan 2020| Content last modified Jan 2020
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Topic Resources

Diabetic nephropathy is glomerular sclerosis and fibrosis caused by the metabolic and hemodynamic changes of diabetes mellitus. It manifests as slowly progressive albuminuria with worsening hypertension and renal insufficiency. Diagnosis is based on history, physical examination, urinalysis, and urine albumin/creatinine ratio. Treatment is strict glucose control, angiotensin inhibition (using angiotensin-converting enzyme [ACE] inhibitors or angiotensin II receptor blockers [ARBs]), and control of blood pressure and lipids.

(See also Diabetic nephropathy.)

Diabetic nephropathy is the most common cause of nephrotic syndrome in adults. Diabetic nephropathy is also the most common cause of end-stage renal disease in the US, accounting for up to 80% of cases. The prevalence of renal failure is probably about 40% among patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus. The prevalence of renal failure among patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus is usually stated as 20 to 30%, but this figure is probably low. Renal failure is particularly common in certain ethnic groups, such as blacks, Mexican-Americans, Polynesians, and Pima Indians. Other risk factors include the following:

  • Duration and degree of hyperglycemia

  • Certain polymorphisms affecting the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone axis

  • Family history of diabetic nephropathy

  • Genetic variables (decreased number of glomeruli)

Because type 2 diabetes is often present for several years before being recognized, nephropathy often develops < 10 years after diabetes is diagnosed.

Renal failure usually takes ≥ 10 years after the onset of nephropathy to develop.

Pathophysiology

Pathogenesis begins with small vessel disease. Pathophysiology is complex, involving glycosylation of proteins, hormonally influenced cytokine release (eg, transforming growth factor-beta), deposition of mesangial matrix, and alteration of glomerular hemodynamics. Hyperfiltration, an early functional abnormality, is only a relative predictor for the development of renal failure.

Hyperglycemia causes glycosylation of glomerular proteins, which may be responsible for mesangial cell proliferation and matrix expansion and vascular endothelial damage. The glomerular basement membrane classically becomes thickened.

Lesions of diffuse or nodular intercapillary glomerulosclerosis are distinctive; areas of nodular glomerulosclerosis may be referred to as Kimmelstiel-Wilson lesions. There is marked hyalinosis of afferent and efferent arterioles as well as arteriosclerosis; interstitial fibrosis and tubular atrophy may be present. Only mesangial matrix expansion appears to correlate with progression to end-stage renal disease.

Depictions of Diabetic Nephropathy

Diabetic nephropathy begins as glomerular hyperfiltration (increased glomerular filtration rate [GFR]); GFR normalizes with early renal injury and mild hypertension, which worsens over time. Microalbuminuria, urinary excretion of albumin in a range of 30 to 300 mg albumin/day, then occurs. Urinary albumin in these concentrations is called microalbuminuria because detection of proteinuria by dipstick on routine urinalysis usually requires >300 mg albumin/day. Microalbuminuria progresses to macroalbuminuria (proteinuria > 300 mg/day at a variable course), usually over years. Nephrotic syndrome (proteinuria 3 g/day) precedes end-stage renal disease, on average, by about 3 to 5 years, but this timing is also highly variable.

Other urinary tract abnormalities commonly occurring with diabetic nephropathy that may accelerate the decline of renal function include papillary necrosis, type IV renal tubular acidosis, and urinary tract infections. In diabetic nephropathy, the kidneys are usually of normal size or larger (> 10 to 12 cm in length).

Symptoms and Signs

Diabetic nephropathy is asymptomatic in early stages. Sustained microalbuminuria is the earliest warning sign. Hypertension and some measure of dependent edema eventually develop in most untreated patients.

In later stages, patients may develop symptoms and signs of uremia (eg, nausea, vomiting, anorexia) earlier (ie, with higher glomerular filtration rate [GFR]) than do patients without diabetic nephropathy, possibly because the combination of end-organ damage due to diabetes (eg, neuropathy) and renal failure worsens symptoms.

Diagnosis

  • Yearly screening of all patients with diabetes with random urine albumin/creatinine ratio

  • Urinalysis for signs of other renal disorders (eg, hematuria, red blood cell [RBC] casts)

The diagnosis is suspected in patients with diabetes who have proteinuria, particularly if they have diabetic retinopathy (indicating small vessel disease) or risk factors for diabetic nephropathy. Other renal disorders should be considered if there are any of the following:

  • Heavy proteinuria with only a brief history of diabetes

  • Absence of diabetic retinopathy

  • Rapid onset of heavy proteinuria

  • Gross hematuria

  • RBC casts

  • Rapid decline in glomerular filtration rate (GFR)

  • Small kidney size

Urinary protein

Patients are tested for proteinuria by routine urinalysis; if proteinuria is present, testing for microalbuminuria is unnecessary because the patient already has macroalbuminuria suggestive of diabetic renal disease. In patients without proteinuria on urinalysis, an albumin/creatinine ratio should be calculated from a mid-morning urine specimen. A ratio 30 mg/g (≥ 34 mg/mmol) indicates microalbuminuria if it is present on at least 2 of 3 specimens within 3 to 6 months and if it cannot be explained by infection or exercise.

Some experts recommend that microalbuminuria be measured from a 24-hour urine collection, but this approach is less convenient, and many patients have difficulty accurately collecting a specimen. The random urine albumin/creatinine ratio overestimates 24-hour collection of microalbuminuria in up to 30% of patients > 65 due to reduced creatinine production from reduced muscle mass. Inaccurate results can also occur in very muscular patients or if vigorous exercise precedes urine collection.

For most patients with diabetes who have proteinuria, the diagnosis is clinical. Renal biopsy can confirm the diagnosis but is rarely necessary.

Screening

Patients with type 1 diabetes without known renal disease should be screened for proteinuria and, if proteinuria is absent on routine urinalysis, for microalbuminuria, beginning 5 years after diagnosis and at least annually thereafter.

Patients with type 2 diabetes should be screened at the time of diagnosis and annually thereafter.

Prognosis

Prognosis is good for patients who are meticulously treated and monitored. Such care is often difficult in practice, however, and most patients slowly lose renal function; even prehypertension (blood pressure [BP] 120 to 139/80 to 89 mm Hg) or stage 1 hypertension (BP 140 to 159/90 to 99 mm Hg) may accelerate injury. Systemic atherosclerotic disease (stroke, myocardial infarction, peripheral arterial disease) predicts an increase in mortality.

Treatment

  • Maintenance of glycosylated Hb (HbA1C) 7.0

  • Aggressive BP control, beginning with angiotensin inhibition

Blood glucose control

Primary treatment is strict glucose control to maintain HbA1C 7.0; maintenance of euglycemia reduces microalbuminuria but may not retard disease progression once diabetic nephropathy is well established.

Blood pressure control

Glucose control must also be accompanied by strict control of BP to < 130/80 mm Hg, although some experts now recommend BP < 140/90 mm Hg. Some suggest BP should be 110 to 120/65 to 80 mm Hg, particularly in patients with protein excretion of > 1 g/day; however, others claim that BP values < 120/85 mm Hg are associated with increased cardiovascular mortality and heart failure.

Angiotensin inhibition is first-line therapy. Thus, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) are the antihypertensives of choice; they reduce BP and proteinuria and slow the progression of diabetic nephropathy. ACE inhibitors are usually less expensive, but ARBs can be used instead if ACE inhibitors cause persistent cough. Treatment should be started when microalbuminuria is detected regardless of whether hypertension is present; some experts recommend drugs be used even before signs of renal disease appear.

Diuretics are required by most patients in addition to angiotensin inhibition to reach target BP levels. Dose should be decreased if symptoms of orthostatic hypotension develop or serum creatinine increases by more than 30%.

Nondihydropyridine calcium channel blockers (diltiazem and verapamil) are also antiproteinuric and renoprotective and can be used if proteinuria does not meaningfully decrease when target BP is reached or as alternatives for patients with hyperkalemia or other contraindications to ACE inhibitors or ARBs.

In contrast, dihydropyridine calcium channel blockers (eg, nifedipine, felodipine, amlodipine) do not reduce proteinuria, although they are useful adjuncts for BP control and may be cardioprotective in combination with ACE inhibitors. ACE inhibitors and nondihydropyridine calcium channel blockers have greater antiproteinuric and renoprotective effects when used together, and their antiproteinuric effect is enhanced by sodium restriction. Nondihydropyridine calcium channel blockers should be used with caution in patients taking beta-blockers because of the potential to worsen bradycardia.

Dyslipidemia

Dyslipidemia should also be treated.

Statins should be used as first-line therapy for dyslipidemia treatment in patients with DN because they reduce cardiovascular mortality and urinary protein.

Other treatments

Dietary protein restriction yields mixed results. The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes and overt nephropathy be restricted to 0.8 to 1.2 g protein/kg/day. Significant protein restriction is not recommended.

Vitamin D supplementation, typically with cholecalciferol (vitamin D3).

Sodium bicarbonate, given to maintain a serum bicarbonate concentration > 22 mEq/L (22 mmol/L), may slow disease progression in patients with chronic kidney disease and metabolic acidosis.

Treatments for edema can include the following:

  • Dietary sodium restriction (eg, < 2 g/day)

  • Fluid restriction

  • Loop diuretics, as needed, with careful titration to avoid hypovolemia

Kidney transplantation

Kidney transplantation with or without simultaneous or subsequent pancreas transplantation is an option for patients with end-stage renal disease. The 5-year survival rate for patients with type 2 diabetes receiving a kidney transplant is almost 60%, compared with 2% for dialysis-dependent patients who do not undergo transplantation (though this statistic probably represents significant selection bias). Kidney allograft survival rate is > 85% at 2 years.

Key Points

  • Diabetic nephropathy is very common, asymptomatic until late, and should be considered in all patients with diabetes.

  • Periodically screen all patients with diabetes with urinalysis and, if proteinuria is absent, albumin/creatinine ratio calculated from a mid-morning urine specimen.

  • Treat BP aggressively, usually beginning with angiotensin inhibition.

  • Control glucose to maintain HbA1C at ≤ 7.0.

More Information

Click here for Patient Education
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version

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