Learn about hemodialysis and the risks and benefits of this procedure to treat kidney failure.
In hemodialysis, a machine filters wastes, salts and fluid from your blood when your kidneys are no longer healthy enough to do this work adequately. Hemodialysis (he-moe-die-AL-uh-sis) is one way to treat advanced kidney failure and can help you carry on an active life despite failing kidneys.
With hemodialysis, you'll need to:
Hemodialysis is a serious responsibility, but you don't have to shoulder it alone. You'll work closely with your health care team, including a kidney specialist and other professionals with experience managing hemodialysis. You may be able to do hemodialysis at home.
Your doctor will help determine when you should start hemodialysis based on several factors, including your:
You might notice signs and symptoms of kidney failure (uremia), such as nausea, vomiting, swelling or fatigue. Your doctor uses your estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR) to measure your level of kidney function. Your eGFR is calculated using your blood creatinine test results, sex, age and other factors. A normal value varies with age. This measure of your kidney function can help to plan your treatment, including when to start hemodialysis.
Hemodialysis can help your body control blood pressure and maintain the proper balance of fluid and various minerals — such as potassium and sodium — in your body. Normally, hemodialysis begins well before your kidneys have shut down to the point of causing life-threatening complications.
Common causes of kidney failure include:
However, your kidneys may shut down suddenly (acute kidney injury) after a severe illness, complicated surgery, heart attack or other serious problem. Certain medications also can cause kidney injury.
Some people with severe long-standing (chronic) kidney failure may decide against starting dialysis and opt for a different path. Instead, they may choose maximal medical therapy, also called maximum conservative management or palliative care. This therapy involves active management of complications of advanced chronic kidney disease, such as fluid overload, high blood pressure and anemia, with a focus on supportive management of symptoms that affect quality of life.
Other people may be candidates for a preemptive kidney transplant, instead of starting on dialysis. Ask your health care team for more information about your options. This is an individualized decision because benefits of dialysis may vary, depending on your particular health issues.
Most people who require hemodialysis have a variety of health problems. Hemodialysis prolongs life for many people, but life expectancy for people who need it is still less than that of the general population.
While hemodialysis treatment can be efficient at replacing some lost kidney function, you may experience some of the related conditions listed below, although not everyone experiences all of these issues. Your dialysis team can help you deal with them.
Preparation for hemodialysis starts several weeks to months before your first procedure. To allow for easy access to your bloodstream, a surgeon will create a vascular access. The access provides a mechanism for a small amount of blood to be safely removed from your circulation and then returned to you in order for the hemodialysis process to work. The surgical access needs time to heal before you begin hemodialysis treatments.
There are three types of accesses:
It's extremely important to take care of your access site to reduce the possibility of infection and other complications. Follow your health care team's instructions about caring for your access site.
You can receive hemodialysis in a dialysis center, at home or in a hospital. The frequency of treatment varies, depending on your situation:
Simpler hemodialysis machines have made home hemodialysis less cumbersome, so with special training and someone to help you, you may be able to do hemodialysis at home. You may even be able to do the procedure at night while you sleep.
There are dialysis centers located throughout the United States and in some other countries, so you can travel to many areas and still receive your hemodialysis on schedule. Your dialysis team can help you make appointments at other locations, or you can contact the dialysis center at your destination directly. Plan ahead to make sure space is available and proper arrangements can be made.
During treatments, you sit or recline in a chair while your blood flows through the dialyzer — a filter that acts as an artificial kidney to clean your blood. You can use the time to watch TV or a movie, read, nap, or perhaps talk to your "neighbors" at the center. If you receive hemodialysis at night, you can sleep during the procedure.
If you had sudden (acute) kidney injury, you may need hemodialysis only for a short time until your kidneys recover. If you had reduced kidney function before a sudden injury to your kidneys, the chances of full recovery back to independence from hemodialysis are lessened.
Although in-center, three-times-a-week hemodialysis is more common, some research suggests that home dialysis is linked to:
Your hemodialysis care team monitors your treatment to make sure you're getting the right amount of hemodialysis to remove enough wastes from your blood. Your weight and blood pressure are monitored very closely before, during and after your treatment. About once a month, you'll receive these tests:
Your care team may adjust your hemodialysis intensity and frequency based, in part, on test results.
Between hemodialysis treatments, you can help achieve the best possible results from your hemodialysis if you: