Short answer: often not! This is because most studies have shown frequently high ESR’s in stable “uninflamed” patients with chronic renal failure (CRF) (including those on dialysis) at levels often associated with infection, connective tissue disease, or malignancy. 1-4
In fact, in a study involving patients with CRF, 57% of patients had markedly elevated ESR (greater than 60 mm/h), with 20% having ESR greater than 100 mm/h; type or duration of dialysis had no significant effect on ESR levels.1 Another study reported a specificity for abnormal ESR of only 35% for commonly considered inflammatory conditions (eg, infections or malignancy) among patients with CRF. 2
But is it the chronic inflammation in diseased kidneys or the uremic environment that elevates ESR? A cool study compared ESR in CRF in patients who had undergone bilateral nephrectomies with those with retained kidneys and found no significant difference in the ESR between the 2 groups. 4 So it looks like it’s the uremic environment, not diseased kidneys themselves that result in elevated ESR in these patients.
The mechanism behind these observations seem to reside entirely within the patients’ plasma, not the erythrocytes. Within the plasma, fibrinogen (not gammaglobulins) seem to be the most likely factor explaining elevated ESR among patients with CRF. 1,2
Bonus pearl: Did you know that ESR is nearly 100 years old, first described in 1921? 5
- Barthon J, Graves J, Jens P, et al. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate in end-stage renal failure. Am J Kidney Dis 1987;10: 34-40. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3605082
- Shusterman N, Morrison G, Singer I. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate and chronic renal failure. Ann Intern Med 1986;105:801. http://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/700910
- Arik N, Bedir A, Gunaydin M, et al. Do erythrocyte sedimentation rate and C-reactive protein levels have diagnostic usefulness in patients with renal failure? Nephron 2000;86:224. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11015011
- Warner DM, George CRP. Erythrocyte sedimentation rate and related factors in end-stage renal failure. Nephron 1991;57:248. https://www.karger.com/Article/PDF/186266
- Fahraeus R. The suspension stability of the blood. Acta Med Scan 1921;55:70-92. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0954-6820.1921.tb15200.x
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