Glomerulonephritis (GN) is a term used to refer to several kidney diseases (usually affecting both kidneys). Many of the diseases are characterised by inflammation either of the glomeruli or of the small blood vessels in the kidneys, hence the name, but not all diseases necessarily have an inflammatory component.
As it is not strictly a single disease, its presentation depends on the specific disease entity: it may present with isolated hematuria and/or proteinuria (blood or protein in the urine); or as a nephrotic syndrome, a nephritic syndrome, acute kidney injury, or chronic kidney disease.
They are categorized into several different pathological patterns, which are broadly grouped into non-proliferative or proliferative types. Diagnosing the pattern of GN is important because the outcome and treatment differs in different types. Primary causes are intrinsic to the kidney. Secondary causes are associated with certain infections (bacterial, viral or parasitic pathogens), drugs, systemic disorders (SLE, vasculitis), or diabetes.
Signs and Symptoms
Glomerulonephritis refers to an inflammation of the glomerulus, which is the unit involved in filtration in the kidney. This inflammation typically results in one or both of the nephrotic or nephritic syndromes.:500
The nephrotic syndrome is characterised by the finding of edema in a person with increased protein in the urine and decreased protein in the blood, with increased fat in the blood. Inflammation that affects the cells surrounding the glomerulus, podocytes, increases the permeability to proteins, resulting in an increase in excreted proteins. When the amount of proteins excreted in the urine exceeds the liver’s ability to compensate, fewer proteins are detected in the blood – in particular albumin, which makes up the majority of circulating proteins. With decreased proteins in the blood, there is a decrease in the oncotic pressure of the blood. This results in edema, as the oncotic pressure in tissue remains the same. Although decreased intravascular oncotic (i.e. osmotic) pressure partially explains the patient’s edema, more recent studies have shown that extensive sodium retention in the distal nephron (collecting duct) is the predominant cause of water retention and edema in the nephrotic syndrome. This is worsened by the secretion of the hormone aldosterone by the adrenal gland, which is secreted in response to the decrease in circulating blood and causes sodium and water retention. Hyperlipidemia is thought to be a result of the increased activity of the liver.:549
The nephritic syndrome is characterised by blood in the urine (especially Red blood cell casts with dysmorphic red blood cells) and a decrease in the amount of urine in the presence of hypertension. In this syndrome, inflammatory damage to cells lining the glomerulus are thought to result in destruction of the epithelial barrier, leading to blood being found in the urine. At the same time, reactive changes, e.g. proliferation of mesangial cells, may result in a decrease in kidney blood flow, resulting in a decrease in the production of urine. The renin–angiotensin system may be subsequently activated, because of the decrease in perfusion of juxtaglomerular apparatus, which may result in hypertension.
Some forms of glomerulonephritis are diagnosed clinically, based on findings on history and examination. Other tests may include:
Blood tests investigating the cause, including FBC, inflammatory markers, and special tests (including ASLO, ANCA, Anti-GBM, Complement levels, Anti-nuclear antibodies)
Biopsy of the kidney
Renal ultrasonography is useful for prognostic purposes in finding signs of chronic kidney disease, which however may be caused by many other diseases than glomerulonephritis.
Proliferative glomerulonephritis is characterised by an increased number of cells in the glomerulus. These forms usually present with a triad of blood in the urine, decreased urine production, and hypertension, the nephritic syndrome. These forms usually progress to end-stage kidney failure (ESKF) over weeks to years (depending on type).
IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease, is the most common type of glomerulonephritis, and generally presents with isolated visible or occult hematuria, occasionally combined with low grade proteinuria, and rarely causes a nephritic syndrome characterised by protein in the urine, and visible blood in the urine. IgA nephropathy is classically described as a self-resolving form in young adults several days after a respiratory infection. It is characterised by deposits of IgA in the space between glomerular capillaries.:501:554–555
Henoch–Schönlein purpura refers to a form of IgA nephropathy, typically affecting children, characterised by a rash of small bruises affecting the buttocks and lower legs, with abdominal pain.:501
Post-infectious glomerulonephritis can occur after essentially any infection, but classically occurs after infection with the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes. It typically occurs 1–4 weeks after a pharyngeal infection with this bacterium, and is likely to present with malaise, a slight fever, nausea and a mild nephritic syndrome of moderately increased blood pressure, gross haematuria, and smoky-brown urine. Circulating immune complexes that deposit in the glomerules may lead to an inflammatory reaction. :554–555
Diagnosis may be made on clinical findings or through antistreptolysin O antibodies found in the blood. A biopsy is seldom done, and the disease is likely to self-resolve in children in 1–4 weeks, with a poorer prognosis if adults are affected.:501
Membranoproliferative GN (MPGN), also known as mesangiocapillary glomerulonephritis,:502 is characterised by an increase in the number of cells in the glomerulus, and alterations in the glomerular basement membrane. These forms present with the nephritic syndrome, hypocomplementemia, and have a poor prognosis. Two primary subtypes exist::552–553
Type 1 MPGN is caused by circulating immune complexes, typically secondary to systemic lupus erythematosus, hepatitis B and C, or other chronic or recurring infections. Circulating immune complexes may activate the complement system, leading to inflammation and an influx of inflammatory cells.:552–553
Type 2 MPGN, also known as Dense Deposit Disease, is characterised by an excessive activation of the complement system. The C3 Nephritic Factor autoantibody stabilizes C3-convertase, which may lead to an excessive activation of complement.