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Clinical Review

How to measure renal function in clinical practice

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 05 October 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:733
  1. Jamie Traynor, specialist registrar (,
  2. Robert Mactier, consultant nephrologist2,
  3. Colin C Geddes, consultant nephrologist1,
  4. Jonathan G Fox, consultant nephrologist2
  1. 1 Renal Unit, Western Infirmary, Glasgow G11 6NT
  2. 2 Renal Unit, Glasgow Royal Infirmary
  1. Correspondence to: J Traynor
  • Accepted 29 August 2006


The reliable measurement of renal excretory function is of great importance in clinical practice and in research. The introduction of routine reporting of estimated glomerular filtration rate and a new definition of chronic kidney disease has renewed interest in methods of measuring renal function. Coupled with this is the fact that several countries are moving towards population screening for renal impairment to try to reduce the associated increased cardiovascular risk. Accurate measurement is methodologically difficult so surrogate measures such as serum creatinine levels and prediction formulas (based on factors such as the patient's age, sex, and serum creatinine level) are more commonly used in routine practice. We describe routine and more specialised methods of assessing renal function and discuss estimated glomerular filtration rate.

The kidney has several interlinked functions (box). These depend on glomerular filtration rate, the unit measure of kidney function. Glomerular filtration rate can be defined as the volume of plasma cleared of an ideal substance per unit of time (usually expressed as ml/min). The ideal substance is one that is freely filtered at the glomerulus and neither secreted nor reabsorbed by the renal tubules.


Creatinine is the closest to an ideal endogenous substance for measuring glomerular filtration rate.w1 Plasma creatinine is almost exclusively a product of the metabolism of creatine and phosphocreatine in skeletal muscle, although ingestion of meat may also contribute slightly.w2 w3 In patients with stable renal function, serum creatinine levels are usually constant, with variability daily of about only 8%.w4 w5 Creatinine is freely filtered at the glomerulus and is not reabsorbed, but up to 15% is actively secreted by the tubules.w6 In advanced renal failure, excretion of creatinine through the gastrointestinal tract increases.w7

Creatinine clearance

Measuring the creatinine clearance using serum creatinine level and a timed urine collection gives an …

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