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Kidneys, ureters and suprarenal glands: want to learn more about it?

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Kidneys, ureters and suprarenal glands

Kidneys and ureters are organs of the urinary system. They take part in urine production and its transport to the urinary bladder, respectively. Fun fact is that the kidneys filter around 180 liters of blood each day, meaning that your entire blood volume passes through them around 60 times every day.

Adrenal glands (suprarenal glands) rest at the superior poles of the kidneys, but functionally they belong to the endocrine system. The adrenal gland functions are very diverse. They produce steroid hormones which regulate a wide variety of bodily functions, such as blood pressure, metabolism and stress response.

Key facts about the kidneys, ureters and adrenal glands
Kidneys Definition: Paired retroperitoneal organs of the urinary system whose function is to filter the blood and produce urine.
Blood supply: renal artery and renal vein
Innervation: renal plexus
Ureters Definition: muscular tube found on each side of the body whose function is to transport urine from the kidneys to the urinary bladder.
Blood supply: renal arteries (proximal third), abdominal aorta, gonadal and common iliac arteries (middle third), internal iliac arteries (distal third)
Innervation: ureteric plexus
Adrenal glands Definition: Bilateral retroperitoneal organs of the endocrine system whose function is to produce hormones which regulate a variety of bodily functions.
Blood supply: superior, middle and inferior suprarenal arteries; suprarenal veins
Innervation: Thoracolumbar splanchnic nerves (T10-L1)

This page will discuss the anatomy and function of the kidneys, ureters and adrenal glands.

Kidneys

Location

Kidneys are paired retroperitoneal organs of the urinary system. The kidney location is on the posterior abdominal wall at the level of the T12-L3 vertebrae. 

Kidney diagram (labeled)

Gross anatomy

Kidneys are bean-shaped structures with superior and inferior poles (extremities), anterior and posterior surfaces, major and minor convexities. The minor convexity is directed towards the median plane and contains the renal hilum. This represents the gateway for passage of the renal artery, renal vein and ureter.

Kidney structure: Diagram

The kidneys consist of two portions: an outer renal cortex and an inner renal medulla. The renal cortex shows segmental extensions called renal columns which project into the medulla and separate its pyramids.

The renal medulla consists of 8-18 renal pyramids. The latter are made up of numerous nephrons. The apex of each pyramid (renal papilla) opens medially to the minor calyx, which is the first part of the urinary collecting system within the kidney. Minor calyces unite to form two to three major calyces, which then combine to form the renal pelvis. The ureter emerges from the renal pelvis and leaves the kidney through the hilum. 

Nephron

The nephron is the functional unit of the kidney. Each nephron consists of a renal corpuscle and a renal tubule. Based on where their corpuscle is located, nephrons are either cortical (corpuscle high in the cortex) or juxtamedullary nephrons (corpuscle low in the cortex close to the medulla).

Nephron structure: Diagram

The renal corpuscle consists of the glomerular (Bowman’s) capsule and a web of capillaries called the glomerulus. The function of the corpuscle is to filter blood, while the renal tubule processes and carries the filtered fluid to the system of calyces. Going from the corpuscle to the calyces, the renal tubules consist of the proximal convoluted tubule, nephron loop (loop of Henle), distal convoluted tubule and collecting tubule.

Collecting tubules from adjacent nephrons empty into a collecting duct, which in turn empties into the system of calyces via the renal papilla. The renal tubules are surrounded by a network of peritubular capillaries into which useful substances are reabsorbed from the filtrate.

Recommended video: Kidney structure
Overview of the structure of the kidney.

Functions

The main function of the kidney is to filter the blood by eliminating metabolic wastes and excess water. It also returns useful substances to the blood, such as minerals and nutrients. Through these actions of filtration and reabsorption the kidneys regulate the levels of minerals, electrolytes and the entire biochemical profile of the body. 

By producing urine, the kidneys also regulate the amount of the body fluid, significantly impacting blood pressure.

To learn more about the kidney and nephrons, check out these study materials.

Ureters

The ureters are bilateral muscular tubes (25 cm long) connecting the kidneys to the urinary bladder. They are partial retroperitoneal structures found on the posterior abdominal wall and inside the pelvis. Each ureter courses downwards from the renal pelvis (ureteropelvic junction), crosses the bifurcation of the common iliac artery and enters the urinary bladder (ureterovesical junction). These junctions are physiological constrictions frequently obstructed by kidney stones (renal calculi).

Kidneys and ureters: Diagram

The ureter function involves forcing the urine downwards by contracting and relaxing its smooth muscle wall (peristalsis). This pushes the urine away from the kidney and into the urinary bladder.

To learn a lot more details about the ureter, read the following study material and then quiz yourself to make it stick!

Suprarenal glands

The suprarenal (adrenal) gland is a bilateral retroperitoneal organ of the endocrine system. It sits on the superior pole of the kidney from which it’s separated by a thin layer of fat. Each gland consists of two distinct parts - adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla.

Adrenal cortex

The adrenal cortex is the outer part of the adrenal gland. It is subdivided into three layers all of which secrete different types of steroid hormones:

  • Zona glomerulosa produces mineralocorticoids such as aldosterone. They regulate electrolyte and water balance within the body.
  • Zona fasciculata synthesizes glucocorticoids such as cortisol, which coordinates responses to stressful situations.
  • Zona reticularis produces adrenal androgens. They regulate sexual development and function.

Suprarenal gland hormones

Adrenal medulla

The adrenal medulla is the central part of the adrenal gland consisting of the chromaffin cells. They release two types of catecholamines into the bloodstream; epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline).

These hormones activate the fight-or-flight response, which is a physiological reaction to stressful or dangerous situations, such as a bear attack or an anatomy exam. They elevate heart activity and blood pressure, dilate the bronchioles and increase blood flow to the muscles.

If you want to find out more about the adrenal gland, adrenal hormones and their functions, read the following articles!

Blood vessels

Kidneys and ureters

Each kidney and ureter is supplied by its respective renal artery that arises from the abdominal aorta, just below the superior mesenteric artery

Blood supply of the kidney: Labeled diagram.

The renal artery enters the hilum of the kidney and divides into a series of smaller vessels. They ultimately end as afferent arterioles, which transport blood into the renal glomerulus for filtration. Filtered blood leaves the glomerulus via the efferent arteriole, which becomes the interlobular vein. Venous blood of the kidney is conveyed by the renal vein which drains into the inferior vena cava.

The ureters receive blood supply from three sources:

  • Upper third from the renal arteries
  • Middle third from the abdominal aorta, gonadal arteries and common iliac arteries
  • Inferior third from the internal iliac arteries

Venous blood from the ureters is drained into the respective renal and gonadal veins.

To learn more about the complex neurovasculature of the kidney, take a look at the following resources.

Adrenal glands

The adrenal glands receive arterial supply from three sources:

  • Inferior phrenic artery - several superior suprarenal arteries
  • Abdominal aorta - several middle suprarenal arteries
  • Renal artery - one inferior suprarenal artery

Venous blood from the left and right adrenal glands drains into their respective suprarenal veins. The right suprarenal vein is a direct tributary of the inferior vena cava, whereas the left suprarenal vein drains into the renal vein first.

Innervation

Kidneys and ureters

The kidneys receive autonomic innervation from the renal plexus. Sympathetic input is provided by the thoracolumbar splanchnic nerves (T10-L1). Parasympathetic input comes from the vagus nerve (CN X).

The ureters receive autonomic nerve supply from the ureteric plexus. The latter receives fibers from the renal, aortic and hypogastric (superior, inferior) plexuses. 

Adrenal glands 

The adrenal glands are stimulated by both neuronal and hormonal pathways. They predominantly receive sympathetic innervation, from the thoracolumbar splanchnic nerves (T10-L1). The fibers synapse directly onto the chromaffin cells of the adrenal medulla, inducing the release of catecholamines. The adrenal cortex receives hormonal stimulation from the pituitary gland by way of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to produce corticotropic hormones.

To understand and visualize these complex neuronal pathways clearly, check out this article and video.

Lymphatics

The lymph from each kidney and suprarenal gland is drained into the lateral aortic (lumbar) lymph nodes. The ureters are drained by the common, external and internal iliac lymph nodes.

Video tutorials

Quizzes

Kidneys, ureters and suprarenal glands: want to learn more about it?

Our engaging videos, interactive quizzes, in-depth articles and HD atlas are here to get you top results faster.

Sign up for your free Kenhub account today and join over 1,164,375 successful anatomy students.

“I would honestly say that Kenhub cut my study time in half.” – Read more. Kim Bengochea Kim Bengochea, Regis University, Denver

Show references

References:

  • Drake, R. L., Vogl, A. W., & Mitchell, A. W. M. (2015). Gray’s Anatomy for Students (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Churchill Livingstone.
  • Moore, K. L., Dalley, A. F., & Agur, A. M. R. (2014). Clinically Oriented Anatomy (7th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Article, review and layout:

  • Gordana Sendić
  • Jana Vasković
  • Adrian Rad
  • Nicola McLaren

Illustrations:

  • Kidney diagram with kidney labeled. - Irina Münstermann
  • Kidney structure - a diagram - Irina Münstermann
  • Nephron structure - a diagram. - Paul Kim
  • Kidneys and ureters - a diagram. - Irina Münstermann
  • Blood supply of the kidney - a labeled diagram. - Irina Münstermann
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