Anatomy of the Urinary System

How do the kidneys and urinary system work?

The body takes nutrients from food and converts them to energy. After the body has taken the food components that it needs, waste products are left behind in the bowel and in the blood.

Illustration of the anatomy of the urinary system, front view

The kidney and urinary systems help the body to eliminate liquid waste called urea, and to keep chemicals, such as potassium and sodium, and water in balance. Urea is produced when foods containing protein, such as meat, poultry, and certain vegetables, are broken down in the body. Urea is carried in the bloodstream to the kidneys, where it is removed along with water and other wastes in the form of urine.

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Other important functions of the kidneys include blood pressure regulation and the production of erythropoietin, which controls red blood cell production in the bone marrow. Kidneys also regulate the acid-base balance and conserve fluids.

Illustration of the anatomy of the kidney

Kidney and urinary system parts and their functions

  • Two kidneys. This pair of purplish-brown organs is located below the ribs toward the middle of the back. Their function is to remove liquid waste from the blood in the form of urine; keep a stable balance of salts and other substances in the blood; and produce erythropoietin, a hormone that aids the formation of red blood cells. The kidneys remove urea from the blood through tiny filtering units called nephrons. Each nephron consists of a ball formed of small blood capillaries, called a glomerulus, and a small tube called a renal tubule. Urea, together with water and other waste substances, forms the urine as it passes through the nephrons and down the renal tubules of the kidney.
  • Two ureters. These narrow tubes carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder. Muscles in the ureter walls continually tighten and relax forcing urine downward, away from the kidneys. If urine backs up, or is allowed to stand still, a kidney infection can develop. About every 10 to 15 seconds, small amounts of urine are emptied into the bladder from the ureters.
  • Bladder. This triangle-shaped, hollow organ is located in the lower abdomen. It is held in place by ligaments that are attached to other organs and the pelvic bones. The bladder’s walls relax and expand to store urine, and contract and flatten to empty urine through the urethra. The typical healthy adult bladder can store up to two cups of urine for two to five hours.
  • Two sphincter muscles. These circular muscles help keep urine from leaking by closing tightly like a rubber band around the opening of the bladder.
  • Nerves in the bladder. The nerves alert a person when it is time to urinate, or empty the bladder.
  • Urethra. This tube allows urine to pass outside the body. The brain signals the bladder muscles to tighten, which squeezes urine out of the bladder. At the same time, the brain signals the sphincter muscles to relax to let urine exit the bladder through the urethra. When all the signals occur in the correct order, normal urination occurs.
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Facts about urine

  • Adults pass about a quart and a half of urine each day, depending on the fluids and foods consumed.
  • The volume of urine formed at night is about half that formed in the daytime.
  • Normal urine is sterile. It contains fluids, salts and waste products, but it is free of bacteria, viruses and fungi.
  • The tissues of the bladder are isolated from urine and toxic substances by a coating that discourages bacteria from attaching and growing on the bladder wall.
Neurogenic or overactive bladder ICD-9: 596.54 Description Neurogenic bladder refers to any loss or impairment of bladder function caused by central nervous system injury or by damage to nerves supplying the bladder. Overactive bladder function may be manifested as either incontinence (loss of voluntary control of micturition) or loss of the autonomic reflex, producing the sensation that the bladder is full. This is also referred to as urinary incontinence. Etiology Neurogenic bladder may present in one of the following two ways: (1) specific bladder dysfunction in which the neurological lesions are above sacral nerves S2 through S4 or (2) flaccid bladder dysfunction in which the lesions are below sacral nerves S2 through S4. Physical trauma to the spinal cord is a frequent cause of neurogenic bladder. Neurogenic bladder may arise as a consequence of multiple sclerosis, dementia, and Parkinson disease. Other causes can include nerve damage as a consequence of chronic alcoholism or heavy-metal poisoning. Me...
Renal cell carcinoma or Kidney cancer ICD-9: 189.x Description Renal cell carcinoma (RCC), also known as renal cell adenocarcinoma, is by far the most common type of kidney cancer, accounting for 90% of kidney cancers. RCC usually grows as a single mass within the kidney but can be found in more than one part of the kidney or in both kidneys. It occurs most often in individuals over age 40. Etiology The cause is essentially unknown; however, risk factors include smoking, obesity, hypertension, long-term dialysis, and exposure to chemicals and irritants, such as asbestos or cadmium in the workplace. Signs and Symptoms Symptoms may include hematuria, flank or side pain that does not go away, a lump or mass palpated in the side or abdomen, weight loss, and fever. Some clients report feeling listless and not well. Diagnostic Procedures A complete physical examination may reveal an enlarged mass. BUN and creatinine levels are checked. A CT scan using contrast media is often used in diagnosis, as is the i...
End-stage renal disease ICD-9: 585.6 Description End-stage renal disease (ESRD), usually the result of chronic renal failure, is the gradual, progressive deterioration of kidney function to the point that the kidneys cannot sustain their necessary dayto-day life activity. As the kidney tissue is progressively destroyed, the kidney loses its ability to excrete the nitrogenous end products of metabolism, such as urea and creatinine, which accumulate in the blood and eventually reach toxic levels. As kidney function diminishes, every organ in the body is affected, and dialysis or kidney transplantation is eventually needed for survival. Etiology Causes of ESRD include diabetes mellitus (leading cause), hypertension, chronic glomerulonephritis, pyelonephritis, obstruction of the urinary tract, congenital anomalies such as polycystic kidneys, vascular disorders, infections, medications, and toxic agents. Signs and Symptoms The early signs and symptoms are oliguria and azotemia, or the presence of n...
Nephrotic syndrome ICD-9: 581.9 Description Nephrotic syndrome is a condition or a complex of signs and symptoms (syndrome) of the basement membrane of the glomerulus. (The basement membrane surrounds each of the many tiny capillaries comprising a glomerulus.) The disease is characterized by severe proteinuria, often to the extent that the body cannot keep up with the protein loss, which is known as hypoalbuminemia. The disease is further characterized by hyperlipemia (excessive levels of fatlike substances called lipids in the blood), lipiduria (lipids in the urine), and generalized edema. Etiology Nephrotic syndrome may result from a variety of disease processes having the capacity to damage the basement membrane of the glomerulus. Between 70% and 75% of the cases of nephrotic syndrome result from some form of glomerulonephritis. The syndrome also may arise as a consequence of diabetes mellitus, systemic lupus erythematosus, neoplasms, or reactions to drugs or toxins. The disease is occasio...
8 Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Stones What are kidney stones? Kidney stones are hard collections of salt and minerals often made up of calcium or uric acid. They form inside the kidney and can travel to other parts of the urinary tract. Stones vary in size. Some are as small as the period at the end of this sentence — a fraction of an inch. Others can grow to a few inches across. Some kidney stones can become so large they take up the entire kidney. A kidney stone forms when too much of certain minerals in your body accumulate in your urine. When you aren’t well hydrated, your urine becomes more concentrated with higher levels of certain minerals. When mineral levels are higher, it’s more likely that a kidney stone will form. About 1 out of every 11 people in the United States will get a kidney stone. Stones are more common in men, people who are obese, and those who have diabetes Smaller kidney stones that remain in the kidney often don’t cause any symptoms. You might not notice anything is amiss until the ...