Human Anatomy:The Kidneys

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The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs, each about the size of a fist. They are located just below the rib cage, one on each side of your spine.

Healthy kidneys filter about a half cup of blood every minute, removing wastes and extra water to make urine. The urine flows from the kidneys to the bladder through two thin tubes of muscle called ureters, one on each side of your bladder. Your bladder stores urine. Your kidneys, ureters, and bladder are part of your urinary tract.

Each of your kidneys is made up of about a million filtering units called nephrons. Each nephron includes a filter, called the glomerulus, and a tubule. The nephrons work through a two-step process: the glomerulus filters your blood, and the tubule returns needed substances to your blood and removes wastes.

Each nephron has a glomerulus to filter your blood and a tubule that returns needed substances to your blood and pulls out additional wastes. Wastes and extra water become urine.

Kidney Structure

The kidneys are encased in complex layers of fascia and fat. They are arranged as follows (deep to superficial):

  • Renal capsule – tough fibrous capsule.
  • Perirenal fat – collection of extraperitoneal fat.
  • Renal fascia (also known as Gerota’s fascia or perirenal fascia) – encloses the kidneys and the suprarenal glands.
  • Pararenal fat – mainly located on the posterolateral aspect of the kidney.

Internally, the kidneys have an intricate and unique structure. The renal parenchyma can be divided into two main areas – the outer cortex and inner medulla. The cortex extends into the medulla, dividing it into triangular shapes – these are known as renal pyramids.

The apex of a renal pyramid is called a renal papilla. Each renal papilla is associated with a structure known as the minor calyx, which collects urine from the pyramids. Several minor calices merge to form a major calyx. Urine passes through the major calices into the renal pelvis, a flattened and funnel-shaped structure. From the renal pelvis, urine drains into the ureter, which transports it to the bladder for storage.

The medial margin of each kidney is marked by a deep fissure, known as the renal hilum. This acts as a gateway to the kidney – normally the renal vessels and ureter enter/exit the kidney via this structure.

Arterial Supply

The kidneys are supplied with blood via the renal arteries, which arise directly from the abdominal aorta, immediately distal to the origin of the superior mesenteric artery.  Due to the anatomical position of the abdominal aorta (slightly to the left of the midline), the right renal artery is longer, and crosses the vena cava posteriorly.

The renal artery enters the kidney via the renal hilum. At the hilum level, the renal artery forms an anterior and a posterior division, which carry 75% and 25% of the blood supply to the kidney, respectively. Five segmental arteries originate from these two divisions.

The avascular plane of the kidney (line of Brodel) is an imaginary line along the lateral and slightly posterior border of the kidney, which delineates the segments of the kidney supplied by the anterior and posterior divisions. It is an important access route for both open and endoscopic surgical access of the kidney, as it minimizes the risk of damage to major arterial branches.

The segmental branches of the renal undergo further divisions to supply the renal parenchyma:

  • Each segmental artery divides to form interlobar arteries. They are situated either side every renal pyramid.
  • These interlobar arteries undergo further division to form the arcuate arteries.
  • At 90 degrees to the arcuate arteries, the interlobular arteries arise.
  • The interlobular arteries pass through the cortex, dividing one last time to form afferent arterioles.
  • The afferent arterioles form a capillary network, the glomerulus, where filtration takes place. The capillaries come together to form the efferent arterioles.

In the outer two-thirds of the renal cortex, the efferent arterioles form what is a known as a peritubular network, supplying the nephron tubules with oxygen and nutrients. The inner third of the cortex and the medulla are supplied by long, straight arteries called vasa recta.

Venous Drainage

The kidneys are drained of venous blood by the left and right renal veins. They leave the renal hilum anteriorly to the renal arteries, and empty directly into the inferior vena cava.

As the vena cava lies slightly to the right, the left renal vein is longer, and travels anteriorly to the abdominal aorta below the origin of the superior mesenteric artery. The right renal artery lies posterior to the inferior vena cava.


Lymph from the kidney drains into the lateral aortic (or para-aortic) lymph nodes, which are located at the origin of the renal arteries.

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