Written by David Heitz | Published on January 6, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on January 6, 2014

What Is Plasmapheresis?

Plasmapheresis is a process in which the liquid in the blood, or plasma, is separated from the cells. In sick people, plasma can contain antibodies that attack the immune system. A machine removes the affected plasma and replaces it with good plasma, or a plasma substitute. This is also known as plasma exchange. The process is similar to kidney dialysis.

Plasmapheresis also can refer to the plasma donation process, where the plasma is removed and cells are returned to the body.

When Does Plasmapheresis Do?

Plasmapheresis can be used to treat a variety of autoimmune disorders, including myasthenia gravis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, and Lambert-Eaton. It can also be used to treat multiple sclerosis.

Sometimes, it is used in people who have received an organ transplant, to counter the effects of the body's natural rejection process.

In recent years, the therapy has increasingly been used to treat critically ill patients with infections and other problems.

How Is Plasmapheresis Administered?

During plasmapheresis treatment or donation, patients or donors rest on a cot. A needle or catheter is placed into a vein in the crux of whichever arm has the most robust artery. In some cases, a catheter is placed in the groin or shoulder.

Replacement or returned plasma flows into the body through a second tube that is placed in the arm or foot.

Treatments can last between one and three hours. A patient can need as many as five treatments per week. Treatment frequency can vary widely from condition to condition, and also depend on a person's overall health.

According to federal regulations, a person can donate plasma up to twice a week. Donation sessions usually take about 90 minutes.

Sometimes hospitalization is required. Other times outpatient treatment is possible.

What Are the Benefits of Plasmapheresis?

Patients who suffer from muscle pain, weakness, and autoimmune disorders such as myasthenia gravis can feel relief in as little as few days. For other conditions, the benefits can take a few weeks to notice.

Unfortunately, the improvements are short-term and the process must often be repeated.

What Are the Risks of Plasmapheresis?

Side effects are rare and generally mild. Sometimes there can be a drop in blood pressure and a feeling of faintness. Cold sweats or an upset stomach also can occur.

More serious but uncommon risks include bleeding, which results from anti-clotting medications. Seizures, abdominal cramps, or tingling in the limbs also have been reported.

How Does a Patient Prepare For Plasmapheresis?

Make sure you have a nutritious meal before undergoing treatment or donating.

What Is the Outlook after Plasmapheresis?

Some people report feeling tired after the procedure, but most tolerate it well.

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