What is a kidney transplant?

A kidney transplant is the surgical placement of a donor kidney to take over the work of damaged or diseased kidneys. It is a treatment for end-stage kidney disease and other severe kidney conditions. Kidney transplantation is a life-saving surgery used when all other medical and surgical options have failed. 

A kidney transplant is a major surgery with serious risks and potential complications. You may have less invasive treatment options. Consider getting a second opinion about all your treatment choices before having a kidney transplant.

Types of kidney transplant 

The types of kidney transplant surgery include:

  • Deceased donor transplant uses a healthy kidney from a person who has just died or who is brain-dead to take over the work of a damaged or diseased recipient’s kidneys.
  • Living donor transplant uses a live person’s kidney to take over the work of a damaged or diseased recipient’s kidneys. A person who donates a kidney can live a normal life with one healthy kidney to meet their body’s needs. Living donors are usually a family member or close friend of the recipient. 

Other procedures that may be performed 

Diseases that cause serious damage to the kidney can also cause serious damage to other organs, including the liver, lung and heart. Another organ may be transplanted during a kidney transplant in rare cases. Your doctor and transplant care team will determine if a combination transplant procedure is right for you.

Other transplant surgeries include:

  • Heart transplant replaces a diseased or damaged heart with a donor heart.
  • Liver transplant replaces a diseased or damaged liver with a donor liver.
  • Lung transplant replaces a diseased or damaged lung with a donor lung.
  • Pancreas transplant replaces a diseased pancreas with a donor pancreas. This is the most commonly performed with a kidney transplant.

Why is a kidney transplant performed?

Your doctor may recommend a kidney transplant to treat end-stage kidney (renal) disease (ESRD). In ESRD, your kidneys are no longer capable of filtering waste products and fluid out of the blood. As a result, waste products and fluids buildup in the body. ESRD is fatal without hemodialysis (artificial filtering of your blood) or kidney transplantation.

Causes of ESRD include:

  • Autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Diabetes
  • Hereditary kidney diseases
  • High blood pressure
  • Infections
  • Kidney tumors
  • Trauma

Your doctor will only consider a kidney transplant for you if other medical and surgical treatment options have failed. Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion before deciding on a kidney transplant.

Who performs a kidney transplant?

The following specialists perform kidney transplants:

  • Transplant surgeons specialize in transplant surgery of the kidney, liver, pancreas, and other organs.
  • General surgeons specialize in the surgical treatment of a wide variety of diseases, disorders and conditions. 
  • Pediatric surgeons specialize in surgery for infants, children and adolescents. 

How is a kidney transplant performed?

Your kidney transplant will be performed in a hospital. Kidney transplant surgery takes from three to four hours. It is an open surgery that involves making an incision in the lower abdomen. The incision runs from the pubic bone to the hipbone. Open surgery allows your doctor to directly view and access the surgical area.

Your surgeon will place the donor kidney through this incision and attach the kidney’s ureter (tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder) to your bladder. Your surgeon will also establish blood supply to your new kidney. In most cases, your own kidneys will remain in place. However, sometimes your surgeon will remove them to improve your health. 

Your surgeon will advise you on which procedure is best for you and how long you need to stay in the hospital based on your diagnosis, age, medical history, general health, and possibly your personal preference. Learn about the different types of kidney transplant and ask why your surgeon will use a particular surgery for you.