Ask the Doctor
Questions about kidney disease? Risk factors? Signs and symptoms? Are you concerned about yourself, a friend or family member? Ask Dr. Spry.
Healthy kidneys clean your blood and remove extra fluid in the form of urine. They also make substances that keep your body healthy. Dialysis replaces some of these functions when your kidneys no longer work. There are two different types of dialysis - hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. This brochure is about hemodialysis. For more information on peritoneal dialysis, see the National Kidney Foundation's brochure Peritoneal Dialysis.
You need dialysis if your kidneys no longer remove enough wastes and fluid from your blood to keep you healthy. This usually happens when you have only 10 to 15 percent of your kidney function left. You may have symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, swelling and fatigue. However, even if you don't have these symptoms yet, you can still have a high level of wastes in your blood that may be toxic to your body. Your doctor is the best person to tell you when you should start dialysis.
In hemodialysis, a dialysis machine and a special filter called an artificial kidney, or a dialyzer, are used to clean your blood. To get your blood into the dialyzer, the doctor needs to make an access, or entrance, into your blood vessels. This is done with minor surgery, usually to your arm.
The dialyzer, or filter, has two parts, one for your blood and one for a washing fluid called dialysate. A thin membrane separates these two parts. Blood cells, protein and other important things remain in your blood because they are too big to pass through the membrane. Smaller waste products in the blood, such as urea, creatinine, potassium and extra fluid pass through the membrane and are washed away.
Hemodialysis can be done in a hospital, in a dialysis center that is not part of a hospital or at home. You and your doctor will decide which place is best, based on your medical condition, and your wishes.
Hemodialysis treatments usually last about four hours, and they are done three times a week.
Your doctor will give you a prescription that tells you how much treatment you need. Studies have shown that getting the right amount of dialysis improves your overall health, keeps you out of the hospital and enables you to live longer. Your dialysis care team will monitor your treatment with monthly lab tests to ensure you are getting the right amount of dialysis. One of the measures your dialysis care team may use is called urea reduction ratio (URR). Another measure is called Kt/V (pronounced kay tee over vee). Ask your dialysis care team what measure they use and what your number is. To ensure that you are getting enough dialysis:
Possibly. Many patients have their hemodialysis treatments at home.
In some cases of sudden or acute kidney failure, dialysis may only be needed for a short time until the kidneys get better. However, when chronic kidney disease progresses to kidney failure over time, your kidneys do not get better and you will need dialysis for the rest of your life unless you are able to receive a kidney transplant.
When you begin hemodialysis, the needles put in your fistula or graft may be uncomfortable. Most patients get used to this in time. Your dialysis care team will make sure you are as comfortable as possible during your treatment. Symptoms like cramps, headaches, nausea or dizziness are not common, but if you do have any of them, ask your dialysis care team if any of the following steps could help you:
You can help yourself by following your diet and fluid allowances. The need to remove too much fluid during dialysis is one of the things that may make you feel uncomfortable during your treatment.
Dialysis is expensive. However, the federal government's Medicare program pays 80 percent of all dialysis costs for most patients. Private health insurance or state medical aid may also help with the costs.
Before you reuse your dialyzer, your dialysis center cleans it according to careful guidelines. If done properly, reuse is generally safe. Before each treatment, your dialyzer must be tested to make sure it is still working well. If your dialyzer no longer works well, it should be discarded and you should be given a new one. Ask your dialysis care team if they have tested your dialyzer and if it still works well.
If you do not wish to reuse your dialyzer, your center may be willing to provide you with a new dialyzer for each treatment. Ask about the center's policy on reuse.
Yes. Dialysis centers are located in every part of the United States and in many foreign countries.
Before you travel, you must make an appointment for dialysis treatments at another center. The staff at your center may be able to help you arrange this appointment. (See National Kidney Foundation brochure Travel Tips: A Guide for Kidney Patients and Their Families.)
Yes. Many dialysis patients continue to work or return to work after they have gotten used to dialysis. If your job has a lot of physical labor (heavy lifting, digging, etc.), you may need to change your duties.
If you would like more information, please contact us.
©2013 National Kidney Foundation. All rights reserved. This material does not constitute medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. No one associated with the National Kidney Foundation will answer medical questions via e-mail. Please consult a physician for specific treatment recommendations.