Hemodialysis is the most common method used to treat advanced and permanent kidney failure. Since the 1960s, when hemodialysis first became a practical treatment for kidney failure, we’ve learned much about how to make hemodialysis treatments more effective and minimize side effects. In recent years, more compact and simpler dialysis machines have made home dialysis increasingly attractive. But even with better procedures and equipment, hemodialysis is still a complicated and inconvenient therapy that requires a coordinated effort from your whole health care team, including your nephrologist, dialysis nurse, dialysis technician, dietitian, and social worker. The most important members of your health care team are you and your family. By learning about your treatment, you can work with your health care team to give yourself the best possible results, and you can lead a full, active life.
When Your Kidneys Fail
Healthy kidneys clean your blood by removing excess fluid, minerals, and wastes. They also make hormones that keep your bones strong and your blood healthy. When your kidneys fail, harmful wastes build up in your body, your blood pressure may rise, and your body may retain excess fluid and not make enough red blood cells. When this happens, you need treatment to replace the work of your failed kidneys.
How Hemodialysis Works
In hemodialysis, your blood is allowed to flow, a few ounces at a time, through a special filter that removes wastes and extra fluids. The clean blood is then returned to your body. Removing the harmful wastes and extra salt and fluids helps control your blood pressure and keep the proper balance of chemicals like potassium and sodium in your body.
One of the biggest adjustments you must make when you start hemodialysis treatments is following a strict schedule. Most patients go to a clinic—a dialysis center—three times a week for 3 to 5 or more hours each visit. For example, you may be on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule or a Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday schedule. You may be asked to choose a morning, afternoon, or evening shift, depending on availability and capacity at the dialysis unit. Your dialysis center will explain your options for scheduling regular treatments.
Researchers are exploring whether shorter daily sessions, or longer sessions performed overnight while the patient sleeps, are more effective in removing wastes. Newer dialysis machines make these alternatives more practical with home dialysis. But the Federal Government has not yet established a policy to pay for more than three hemodialysis sessions a week.
Several centers around the country teach people how to perform their own hemodialysis treatments at home. A family member or friend who will be your helper must also take the training, which usually takes at least 4 to 6 weeks. Home dialysis gives you more flexibility in your dialysis schedule. With home hemodialysis, the time for each session and the number of sessions per week may vary, but you must maintain a regular schedule by giving yourself dialysis treatments as often as you would receive them in a dialysis unit.
Adjusting to Changes
Even in the best situations, adjusting to the effects of kidney failure and the time you spend on dialysis can be difficult. Aside from the “lost time,” you may have less energy. You may need to make changes in your work or home life, giving up some activities and responsibilities. Keeping the same schedule you kept when your kidneys were working can be very difficult now that your kidneys have failed. Accepting this new reality can be very hard on you and your family. A counselor or social worker can answer your questions and help you cope.
Many patients feel depressed when starting dialysis, or after several months of treatment. If you feel depressed, you should talk with your social worker, nurse, or doctor because this is a common problem that can often be treated effectively.
Getting Your Vascular Access Ready
One important step before starting hemodialysis is preparing a vascular access, a site on your body from which your blood is removed and returned. A vascular access should be prepared weeks or months before you start dialysis. It will allow easier and more efficient removal and replacement of your blood with fewer complications. For more information about the different kinds of vascular accesses and how to care for them, see the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) fact sheet Vascular Access for Hemodialysis.
Equipment and Procedures
When you first visit a hemodialysis center, it may seem like a complicated mix of machines and people. But once you learn how the procedure works and become familiar with the equipment, you’ll be more comfortable.
The dialysis machine is about the size of a dishwasher. This machine has three main jobs:
- pump blood and watch flow for safety
- clean wastes from blood
- watch your blood pressure and the rate of fluid removal from your body
The dialyzer is a large canister containing thousands of small fibers through which your blood is passed. Dialysis solution, the cleansing fluid, is pumped around these fibers. The fibers allow wastes and extra fluids to pass from your blood into the solution, which carries them away. The dialyzer is sometimes called an artificial kidney.
- Reuse. Stafford dialysis does not reuse dialyzer some dialysis centers may use the same dialyzer more than once for your treatments. Reuse is considered safe as long as the dialyzer is cleaned before each use. The dialyzer is tested each time to make sure it’s still working, and it should never be used for anyone but you. Before each session, you should be sure that the dialyzer is labeled with your name and check to see that it has been cleaned, disinfected, and tested.
Dialysis solution, also known as dialysate, is the fluid in the dialyzer that helps remove wastes and extra fluid from your blood. It contains chemicals that make it act like a sponge. Your doctor will give you a specific dialysis solution for your treatments. This formula can be adjusted based on how well you handle the treatments and on your blood tests.
Many people find the needle sticks to be one of the hardest parts of hemodialysis treatments. Most people, however, report getting used to them after a few sessions. If you find the needle insertion painful, an anesthetic cream or spray can be applied to the skin. The cream or spray will numb your skin briefly so you won’t feel the needle.
Most dialysis centers use two needles—one to carry blood to the dialyzer and one to return the cleaned blood to your body. Some specialized needles are designed with two openings for two-way flow of blood, but these needles are less efficient and require longer sessions. Needles for high-flux or high-efficiency dialysis need to be a little larger than those used with regular dialyzers.
Arterial and venous needles.
Some people prefer to insert their own needles. You’ll need training on inserting needles properly to prevent infection and protect your vascular access. You may also learn a “ladder” strategy for needle placement in which you “climb” up the entire length of the access session by session so that you don’t weaken an area with a grouping of needle sticks. A different approach is the “buttonhole” strategy in which you use a limited number of sites but insert the needle back into the same hole made by the previous needle stick. Whether you insert your own needles or not, you should know these techniques to better care for your access.
Tests to See How Well Your Dialysis Is Working
About once a month, your dialysis care team will test your blood by using one of two formulas—URR or Kt/V—to see whether your treatments are removing enough wastes. Both tests look at one specific waste product, called blood urea nitrogen (BUN), as an indicator for the overall level of waste products in your system. For more information about these measurements, see the NIDDK fact sheet Hemodialysis Dose and Adequacy.
Conditions Related to Kidney Failure and Their Treatments
Your kidneys do much more than remove wastes and extra fluid. They also make hormones and balance chemicals in your system. When your kidneys stop working, you may have problems with anemia and conditions that affect your bones, nerves, and skin. Some of the more common conditions caused by kidney failure are extreme tiredness, bone problems, joint problems, itching, and “restless legs.” Restless legs will keep you awake as you feel them twitching and jumping.
Anemia and Erythropoietin (EPO)
Anemia is a condition in which the volume of red blood cells is low. Red blood cells carry oxygen to cells throughout the body. Without oxygen, cells can’t use the energy from food, so someone with anemia may tire easily and look pale. Anemia can also contribute to heart problems.
Anemia is common in people with kidney disease because the kidneys produce the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, which stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells. Diseased kidneys often don’t make enough EPO, and so the bone marrow makes fewer red blood cells. EPO is available commercially and is commonly given to patients on dialysis.
For more information about the causes of and treatments for anemia in kidney failure, see the NIDDK fact sheet Anemia in Kidney Disease and Dialysis.
The term “renal” describes things related to the kidneys. Renal osteodystrophy, or bone disease of kidney failure, affects 90 percent of dialysis patients. It causes bones to become thin and weak or formed incorrectly and affects both children and adults. Symptoms can be seen in growing children with kidney disease even before they start dialysis. Older patients and women who have gone through menopause are at greater risk for this disease.
For more information about the causes of this bone disease and its treatment in dialysis patients, see the NIDDK fact sheet Renal Osteodystrophy.
Many people treated with hemodialysis complain of itchy skin, which is often worse during or just after treatment. Itching is common even in people who don’t have kidney disease; in kidney failure, however, itching can be made worse by wastes in the bloodstream that current dialyzer membranes can’t remove from the blood.
The problem can also be related to high levels of parathyroid hormone (PTH). Some people have found dramatic relief after having their parathyroid glands removed. The four parathyroid glands sit on the outer surface of the thyroid gland, which is located on the windpipe in the base of your neck, just above the collarbone. The parathyroid glands help control the levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood.
But a cure for itching that works for everyone has not been found. Phosphate binders seem to help some people; these medications act like sponges to soak up, or bind, phosphorus while it is in the stomach. Others find relief after exposure to ultraviolet light. Still others improve with EPO shots. A few antihistamines (Benadryl, Atarax, Vistaril) have been found to help; also, capsaicin cream applied to the skin may relieve itching by deadening nerve impulses. In any case, taking care of dry skin is important. Applying creams with lanolin or camphor may help.
Patients on dialysis often have insomnia, and some people have a specific problem called the sleep apnea syndrome, which is often signaled by snoring and breaks in snoring. Episodes of apnea are actually breaks in breathing during sleep. Over time, these sleep disturbances can lead to “day-night reversal” (insomnia at night, sleepiness during the day), headache, depression, and decreased alertness. The apnea may be related to the effects of advanced kidney failure on the control of breathing. Treatments that work with people who have sleep apnea, whether they have kidney failure or not, include losing weight, changing sleeping position, and wearing a mask that gently pumps air continuously into the nose (nasal continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP).
Many people on dialysis have trouble sleeping at night because of aching, uncomfortable, jittery, or “restless” legs. You may feel a strong impulse to kick or thrash your legs. Kicking may occur during sleep and disturb a bed partner throughout the night. The causes of restless legs may include nerve damage or chemical imbalances.
Moderate exercise during the day may help, but exercising a few hours before bedtime can make it worse. People with restless leg syndrome should reduce or avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco; some people also find relief with massages or warm baths. A class of drugs called benzodiazepines, often used to treat insomnia or anxiety, may help as well. These prescription drugs include Klonopin, Librium, Valium, and Halcion. A newer and sometimes more effective therapy is levodopa (Sinemet), a drug used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Sleep disorders may seem unimportant, but they can impair your quality of life. Don’t hesitate to raise these problems with your nurse, doctor, or social worker.
Dialysis-related amyloidosis (DRA) is common in people who have been on dialysis for more than 5 years. DRA develops when proteins in the blood deposit on joints and tendons, causing pain, stiffness, and fluid in the joints, as is the case with arthritis. Working kidneys filter out these proteins, but dialysis filters are not as effective. For more information, see the NIDDK fact sheet Amyloidosis and Kidney Disease.