Dialysis

Written by Brian Krans | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

The function of your kidneys is to purify your body by removing waste and excess fluid. Dialysis is a treatment used for people whose kidneys don't work properly. It's a common treatment that has been used for people with kidney problems since the 1940s.

The Purpose of Dialysis

A properly functioning kidney helps prevent salt, extra water, and waste from accumulating in your body. It also helps control blood pressure and regulates important chemicals in the blood, such as sodium (salt) and potassium. When your kidneys don't perform these functions due to disease or injury, dialysis can help purify the blood and remove waste.

Learn more about the kidneys using Healthline’s Body Maps.

How It Works

There are two different types of dialysis:

  • Hemodialysis involves using an artificial kidney, known as a hemodialyzer, to remove waste and chemicals from the blood. It accesses the blood through a minor surgical procedure in the arm or leg, or through a plastic tube in the neck called a catheter.
  • Peritoneal dialysis involves the surgical implantation of a catheter into your stomach area. During treatment, a special fluid called dialystate is pumped into the abdomen where it draws waste out of the bloodstream.

The length of treatment depends on the patient's size, the levels of waste in their body, and whether hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis is used. Typical hemodialysis treatments last about four hours and are needed about three times a week. Peritoneal dialysis can be done at home, at work, or during sleep, depending on the style of treatment your doctor recommends.

Most dialysis treatments are administered at a hospital or doctor's office. After enough time using the machines, your doctor may feel that you're prepared to self-administer the treatments at home. (This option is more common in long-term dialysis patients.)

The Intended Benefits

Dialysis is intended to keep the body running as normal as possible while the kidneys are under repair or while a person waits for a kidney transplant. Without working kidneys or dialysis, salts and other waste products would accumulate in the blood and poison the person. Dialysis is NOT a cure for kidney disease or ailments affecting the kidneys. Other treatments are needed to address those concerns.

Risks

Dialysis carries several risks, although many can be avoided through proper procedure and careful use of equipment. Risks associated with dialysis include:

  • bleeding at the access site
  • low blood pressure
  • irregular heartbeat
  • infection
  • nausea
  • air bubbles in the blood

There are other long-term risks associated with dialysis. One of the most common is called dialysis dementia, a neurological syndrome caused by aluminum compounds in the dialysis fluid. Symptoms of dialysis dementia include seizures and physical and speech problems.

If you experience any of these symptoms during dialysis treatment, notify your doctor to discuss options and ways to lower your risks.

Preparing for Dialysis

Before your first dialysis treatment, your doctor will surgically install a tube or device to gain access to your blood stream. This is typically a quick operation and will allow you to return home the same day.

It's best to wear comfortable clothing that allows for easy access to your port or catheter. Follow all your doctor's instructions, which may include fasting for a certain amount of time before the treatment.

Desired Results

Not all kidney failure is permanent. Dialysis can temporarily aid the kidneys while they repair themselves. Treatment typically lasts until the kidneys begin to work on their own again. However, in chronic kidney failure, the kidneys rarely get better and dialysis is needed for the rest of your life or until a kidney transplant becomes an option.

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