Dialysis is a treatment that takes over the job of your kidneys if they fail. The kidneys perform many functions that help your body stay healthy. They help clear toxins out of your blood and help your body balance salt levels. Most patients begin dialysis when their kidneys have lost 85%-90% of their ability. You may be on dialysis for a short time, or you may need it for the rest of your life.
If you have kidneys that are not working and the damage is not reversible, you have end stage renal disease (ESRD). ESRD is caused by conditions such as diabetes, kidney cancer, drug use, high blood pressure, or other problems. Dialysis is not a cure for ESRD, but it does help you feel better and live longer.
There are two types of dialysis: hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. This fact sheet will focus on hemodialysis.
Reasons for Procedure
The main functions of hemodialysis are to:
It may also be done to remove toxins from the bloodstream quickly. It can be used in cases of poisoning or drug overdose.
Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:
If you have heart problems, this may increase your risk of complications from hemodialysis.
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
Usually, before your first hemodialysis, you will have some sort of tubing attached to a large vein. The tubing will make blood flow from your body to the machine and back more easily. If you will be on hemodialysis for a long time, you may have had surgery to create a shunt or a fistula, which makes access to a large vein easier. Fistulas may need as long as 2–3 months to fully heal before they can be used.
Before your hemodialysis, you will:
If needle insertion is needed, you will be given a topical pain-numbing medication.
Description of the Procedure
Hemodialysis is done at a dialysis center or hospital. It may be done at home with assistance.
During the procedure, blood is filtered through an artificial kidney machine, called a dialyzer. The blood travels from your body to the machine through tubes inserted into a large vein in your body. After the blood is filtered in the machine, it travels back into your body through another tube.
How Long Will It Take?
Hemodialysis is usually done three times a week. Each treatment can last 2-4 hours. The specific time needed depends on:
Will It Hurt?
In general, hemodialysis does not cause pain. You will not feel the blood exchange. There may be some temporary discomfort inserting the needle or tube.
At the Care Center
Your blood pressure will be monitored. After the procedure is complete and blood pressure is stable, you can continue daily activities.
Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions. There are some special considerations:
Certain dietary guidelines should be followed. This will help maintain overall health and optimize treatment effects. Talk to your doctor about your specific dietary needs.
Your doctor may give you various medications. These include, but are not limited to:
Call Your Doctor
Call your doctor if any of the following occurs:
If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.
The Kidney Dialysis Foundation
National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse
The Kidney Foundation of Canada: British Columbia Branch
Hemodialysis. National Kidney Foundation website. Available at: http://www.kidney.org/atoz/content/hemodialysis.cfm . Accessed May 21, 2013.
Dialysis for chronic kidney disease. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what . Updated May 9, 2013. Accessed May 21, 2013.
Treatment Methods for Kidney Failure: Hemodialysis. National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse website. Available at: http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/hemodialysis/ . Updated December 21, 2011. Accessed May 21, 2013.
Last reviewed May 2013 by Adrienne Carmack, MD; Brian Randall, MD