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L. Aimee Hechanova

, MD, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, El Paso

Reviewed/Revised Sep 2022
Topic Resources

Dialysis is an artificial process for removing waste products and excess fluids from the body, a process that is needed when the kidneys are not functioning properly.

There are a number of reasons why people may need dialysis, but the inability of the kidneys to adequately filter waste products from the blood (kidney failure) is the most common. Kidney function may decline quickly (called acute kidney injury Acute Kidney Injury Acute kidney injury is a rapid (days to weeks) decline in the kidneys’ ability to filter metabolic waste products from the blood. Causes include conditions that decrease blood flow to the kidneys... read more or acute kidney failure), or the kidneys may slowly lose their ability to filter waste products (called chronic kidney disease Chronic Kidney Disease Chronic kidney disease is a slowly progressive (months to years) decline in the kidneys’ ability to filter metabolic waste products from the blood. Major causes are diabetes and high blood pressure... read more or chronic kidney failure).

In people with kidney failure, many doctors recommend dialysis when blood tests show that the kidneys can no longer filter waste products adequately and the accumulating waste products cause problems. For acute kidney injury, doctors continue dialysis until the person’s blood test results indicate that adequate kidney function has been restored. For people with chronic kidney disease, dialysis may be used as long-term therapy or as a temporary measure until the person can receive a kidney transplant Kidney Transplantation Kidney transplantation is the removal of a healthy kidney from a living or recently deceased person and then its transfer into a person with end-stage kidney failure. (See also Overview of Transplantation... read more Kidney Transplantation . Short-term or urgent dialysis can also be used to remove fluids, certain drugs, or poisons from the body.

Kidney Failure: Dialysis

Making the decision to begin long-term dialysis is not easy because it entails a major change in lifestyle, including a dependency on machines to maintain life. However, for most people, a successful dialysis program results in an acceptable quality of life. Most people undergoing dialysis are able to eat a tolerable diet and have normal blood pressure.

Dialysis usually requires the effort of a team of people:

  • A doctor establishes a dialysis prescription, manages complications, and provides the medical care.

  • A nurse monitors the person’s general well-being, educates the person about dialysis and what needs to be done to maintain the best possible health, oversees the dialysis procedure, administers dialysis-related drugs, and supervises the dialysis technicians.

  • Often, a social worker assesses mental health, arranges transportation, arranges for dialysis in other locations if the person is traveling, and arranges home assistance when needed.

  • A dietitian recommends an appropriate diet and monitors the person’s response to dietary changes.

  • A transplant surgeon is also part of the dialysis team when dialysis is intended to be used temporarily until a kidney can be transplanted.

  • A technician assists in getting the procedure started and monitors the dialysis machine during the dialysis.

  • Doctors such as a vascular surgeon and often an interventional radiologist prepare the blood vessels so that blood can be easily withdrawn from the body and cycled through the dialysis machine.

Reasons for Dialysis in Kidney Failure

Doctors decide to place a person on dialysis when kidney failure is causing certain conditions:

Occasionally, another technique (such as hemofiltration or hemoperfusion) is used to temporarily filter the blood and accomplish what dialysis would. These techniques are most often used if dialysis cannot be done, to remove the poisons from the blood, or to remove large amounts of fluid in some people who have acute kidney injury.

Hemofiltration and Hemoperfusion: Other Ways of Filtering the Blood

Occasionally, techniques other than dialysis are used to filter the blood.

Hemofiltration is often done as a continuous procedure in people who are seriously ill and in an intensive care unit. This procedure allows doctors to filter large amounts of blood.

Hemoperfusion is most often used in treating poisoning. The person's blood flows over a filter that contains charcoal or some other material that absorbs the poison.

Types of Dialysis

There are two types of dialysis:

  • Hemodialysis

  • Peritoneal dialysis


In hemodialysis, blood is removed from the body and pumped by a machine outside the body into a dialyzer (artificial kidney). The dialyzer filters metabolic waste products from the blood and then returns the purified blood to the person. The total amount of fluid returned can be adjusted, in particular the excess fluid that builds up during kidney failure can be removed.

Hemodialysis requires repeated access to the bloodstream. Although doctors can achieve temporary access by inserting a large intravenous catheter in a big vein, usually an artificial connection between an artery and a vein (an arteriovenous fistula Arteriovenous Fistula An arteriovenous fistula is an abnormal channel between an artery and a vein. Rarely, a large fistula may divert enough blood to cause symptoms of reduced blood flow in the affected arm or leg... read more Arteriovenous Fistula ) is surgically created to make long-term access easier. In this procedure, typically the radial artery in the forearm is joined with the cephalic vein in the forearm. As a result, the cephalic vein subsequently enlarges and blood flow through the vein increases, making the vein suitable for repeated puncture with a needle. Fistulas are created by vascular surgeons.

When a fistula cannot be created, an artery and a vein may be surgically connected to each other using a synthetic connector (graft). Grafts are often placed in the person's arm. In hemodialysis, a technician places needles into the person's fistula or graft to allow the blood to be removed for cleaning.

Heparin, a drug that prevents clotting, is given during hemodialysis to prevent blood from clotting in the dialyzer. Inside the dialyzer, a porous artificial membrane separates the blood from a fluid (the dialysate). Fluid, waste products, and electrolytes Overview of Electrolytes More than half of a person's body weight is water. Doctors think about water in the body as being restricted to various spaces, called fluid compartments. The three main compartments are Fluid... read more in the blood filter through the membrane into the dialysate. Blood cells and large proteins are unable to filter through the small pores of the membrane and so remain in the blood. The dialyzed (purified) blood is then returned to the person’s body.

The most common complication of hemodialysis is low blood pressure during or shortly after dialysis. Blood pressure usually increases during the period between treatments. People, particularly when starting hemodialysis, may have muscle cramps, itching, nausea and vomiting, headache, restless legs syndrome, and pain in the chest and back. Less often, they can have confusion, restlessness, blurred vision, and/or seizures.

Complications can also involve the graft or fistula, such as infection, blood clots, bleeding, and bulging (aneurysm Aortic Aneurysms The aorta, which is about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter, is the largest artery of the body. It receives oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle of the heart and distributes it to all... read more formation). People should promptly notify their doctors if any of the following occurs:

  • Pain

  • Redness or warmth

  • Breaks in nearby skin

  • Bruising

  • Prolonged bleeding from the fistula site

  • Rapidly enlarging (over a few days or less) bulge over the graft or fistula

  • Loss of the pulse or vibratory feeling that the graft or fistula site normally has

  • Swelling (edema)


Peritoneal dialysis

The abdominal organs, such as the stomach and intestines, are inside a large hollow space called the abdominal cavity. The peritoneum is a membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and covers the abdominal organs. In peritoneal dialysis, that membrane acts as a filter. This membrane has a large surface area and a rich network of blood vessels. Substances from the blood can easily pass through the peritoneum into the abdominal (peritoneal) cavity. A fluid (dialysate) is infused through a catheter inserted through the abdominal wall into the peritoneal space within the abdomen. The dialysate must be left in the abdomen for a sufficient time to allow waste products from the bloodstream to pass slowly into it. Then the dialysate is drained out, discarded, and replaced with fresh dialysate.

A soft silicone rubber or porous polyurethane catheter allows the dialysate to flow smoothly and is unlikely to cause damage. A catheter can be put in place temporarily at the person’s bedside, or it may be surgically put in place permanently. One type of permanent catheter eventually forms a seal with the skin and can be capped when not in use.

Peritoneal dialysis can be done using a machine (called automated peritoneal dialysis) or without one (using manual techniques).

Manual peritoneal dialysis, generally done using continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis, techniques are the simplest. No machine is used. The dialysate is usually drained and replenished 4 or 5 times per day. Generally, 3 of these dialysate exchanges are done during the day, with dwell times of 4 hours or longer. An exchange is done at night with a long dwell time of 8 to 12 hours during sleep.

Automated peritoneal dialysis techniques are becoming the most commonly used forms of peritoneal dialysis. In automated peritoneal dialysis, an automated device does multiple exchanges during the night while the person sleeps. These techniques minimize the number of exchanges during the day but prevent mobility at night because of cumbersome equipment. Sometimes a daytime exchange time is used. Automated peritoneal dialysis techniques are further divided into three subcategories:

  • Continuous cyclic peritoneal dialysis uses a long (12- to 15-hour) daytime dwell period and 3 to 6 nighttime exchanges done with an automated cycler.

  • Nocturnal intermittent peritoneal dialysis uses exchanges done with a cycler at night while the person's peritoneal cavity is left without dialysate fluid during the day.

  • Tidal peritoneal dialysis is a modification in which some of the dialysate fluid is left in the peritoneal cavity from one exchange to the next. This technique may be more comfortable for the person. Tidal peritoneal dialysis may be done with or without a daytime dwell period.

Some people require a combination of continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis and continuous cyclic peritoneal dialysis to achieve adequate removal of waste products from their blood.


Choice of technique

Many factors, including lifestyle, must be considered in determining which type of dialysis is best for a person. Doctors recommend hemodialysis for people with recent abdominal wounds or abdominal surgery or defects in the abdominal wall that make peritoneal dialysis difficult. Peritoneal dialysis is better tolerated than hemodialysis in people whose blood pressure fluctuates frequently between periods of high or normal pressure and periods of low blood pressure.

People typically undergo hemodialysis at a dialysis center 3 times a week for 3 to 5 hours at a time, usually outside of a hospital. The main advantage of in-center dialysis is that the dialysis staff manages the treatment.

In-center nocturnal hemodialysis is a good choice for people who experience certain difficulties (for example, high fluid gains, low blood pressure, or difficult-to-control phosphorus levels). Although this variation of dialysis is also done 3 times a week, the sessions are longer, lasting from 6 to 8 hours each.

Home hemodialysis can also be done on a conventional schedule (3 times per week during the daytime), or at night. Most home hemodialysis programs require a care partner who is able to help with the treatments if needed. People treated with home dialysis may have longer lives and better quality of life than people treated with conventional hemodialysis.

Peritoneal dialysis can also be done at home, eliminating the need for travel to a hemodialysis center.

The most common and troublesome complications of peritoneal dialysis are infection of the peritoneal fluid (causing inflammation of the peritoneum, called peritonitis Peritonitis Abdominal pain is common and often minor. Severe abdominal pain that comes on quickly, however, almost always indicates a significant problem. The pain may be the only sign of the need for surgery... read more ) and infection of the area where the catheter enters the skin (insertion site). Peritonitis may cause constant, sharp, severe pain throughout the abdomen, but sometimes causes little pain. Infection at the insertion site causes redness of the skin and pain at the insertion site. Such infections can be treated with antibiotics and careful wound care.

Comparing Hemodialysis With Peritoneal Dialysis

When the kidneys fail, waste products and excess water can be removed from the blood by hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis.

In hemodialysis, blood is removed from the body into a dialyzer (called an artificial kidney), which filters the blood. An artificial connection between an artery and a vein (arteriovenous fistula) is made to facilitate the removal of blood.

In peritoneal dialysis, the peritoneum is used as a filter. The peritoneum is a membrane that lines the abdomen and covers the abdominal organs, creating a space within the abdomen called the peritoneal space or abdominal cavity.

Comparing Hemodialysis With Peritoneal Dialysis

Special Considerations


People undergoing dialysis need a special diet. In people undergoing peritoneal dialysis, appetite is generally poor, and protein is lost during dialysis. The diet should have enough calories (about 16 calories per pound of ideal body weight, slightly more in children) and be relatively high in protein (about ½ gram of protein per pound of ideal body weight) per day. (The American Association of Kidney Patients has a food guide.) Salt, both the usual table salt, which contains sodium, and the salt containing potassium, is restricted.

For people undergoing hemodialysis, daily consumption of sodium and potassium is even more restricted. Foods high in phosphorus also may have to be limited. Daily fluid intake is limited for people who have very little urine output or a persistently low or decreasing sodium concentration in the blood. Daily weighing is important to monitor weight gain. Excessive weight gain between hemodialysis treatments indicates that the person is consuming excessive fluid. Usually, excessive fluid intake is the result of excessive sodium intake, which makes a person thirsty.

Multivitamin supplements are needed to replace the nutrients lost through hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis. Vitamin supplements should be discussed with a doctor or nutritionist.

Medical considerations

Because people with chronic kidney disease Chronic Kidney Disease Chronic kidney disease is a slowly progressive (months to years) decline in the kidneys’ ability to filter metabolic waste products from the blood. Major causes are diabetes and high blood pressure... read more develop anemia, erythropoietin, darbepoetin, or methoxy polyethylene glycol-epoetin beta may be given to stimulate the production of red blood cells. Iron may also be needed to help the body produce new red blood cells.

Phosphate binders, most often those such as calcium carbonate or calcium acetate (for example, in antacids), or sevelamer, are used to remove excess dietary phosphate.

Normally the body’s bone tissue is continually replaced, helping bones remain strong and dense. The kidneys convert vitamin D to its active form (calcitriol), which helps regulate the amount of calcium in the blood and the amount used to produce bone tissue. In people with kidney failure, the kidneys are not able to convert enough vitamin D to its active form, so parathyroid hormone levels may increase. High parathyroid hormone levels can weaken bones by decreasing their density, a bone condition called renal osteodystrophy. To correct this problem, the active form of vitamin D or a similar substance is given to lower high parathyroid hormone levels.

People who are undergoing dialysis often have risk factors for coronary artery disease Overview of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) Coronary artery disease is a condition in which the blood supply to the heart muscle is partially or completely blocked. The heart muscle needs a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood. The coronary... read more Overview of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) , including high blood pressure, high levels of lipids (fats) in the blood, and diabetes. People need to take special care to lower their risk of coronary artery disease.

Constipation Constipation in Adults Constipation is difficult or infrequent bowel movements, hard stool, or a feeling that the rectum is not totally empty after a bowel movement (incomplete evacuation). (See also Constipation... read more may occur in people undergoing dialysis, which may hamper peritoneal dialysis. If too much stool fills the intestine, the extra volume can partly block the catheter that drains dialysis fluid. People may need to take laxatives Laxatives Constipation is difficult or infrequent bowel movements, hard stool, or a feeling that the rectum is not totally empty after a bowel movement (incomplete evacuation). (See also Constipation... read more , but they are usually given bulking agents (such as psyllium) or sorbitol, not laxatives that contain phosphate or magnesium.

High levels of aluminum in the blood (aluminum toxicity) may occur in people who take phosphate binders that contain aluminum. Another potential source of aluminum is the water used to make the dialysate. Because many phosphate binders are available that do not have aluminum and because aluminum is effectively removed during preparation of the ultra pure water used in dialysate today, aluminum toxicity is now uncommon. Aluminum toxicity can cause weak bones, anemia, and dementia. Deferoxamine can be given through the peritoneal catheter or through a vein to help eliminate aluminum from the body.

Calciphylaxis is a rare disorder in which arteries harden, causing a reduction in blood flow to the skin of the trunk, buttocks, and legs. It is caused in part by high levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood. It causes painful skin bumps and ulcers that often become infected. Severe infection can affect the entire body and be fatal. Treatment aims to relieve complications of calciphylaxis. For example, infection is treated with antibiotics, and pain is treated with analgesics. Drugs may be given to lower levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood. Wounds are treated with careful skin care.

Psychosocial considerations

People undergoing dialysis may experience losses in every aspect of their life. The potential loss of independence can be especially distressing. Coping with disruptions in lifestyle can be difficult. Many people undergoing dialysis become depressed and anxious. Psychologic and social counseling is often helpful to families as well as to those undergoing dialysis. Many dialysis centers provide psychologic and social support. Dealing with a loss of independence is helped when people are encouraged to pursue their previous interests. People undergoing hemodialysis need to arrange for transportation to and from dialysis centers on a regular basis. Dialysis sessions may interfere with work, school, or leisure activities.

More than half of the people on long-term dialysis are 60 years of age or older. Older people often are better able to adapt to long-term dialysis and the loss of independence than are younger people. However, older people undergoing dialysis may become more dependent on their grown children or may not be able to continue living alone. Older people are more likely to experience fatigue from treatments. Often, family roles and responsibilities must be modified to fit the dialysis routine, creating stress and feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

Considerations in children

Children whose growth has been stunted may feel isolated and different from their peers. Young adults and adolescents coping with identity, independence, and body image issues may find these issues further complicated by dialysis. Diet is an important issue for children undergoing dialysis because children must receive enough nutrients to support their growth.

More Information

The following English-language resource may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
Hepflush-10 , Hep-Lock, Hep-Lock U/P, Monoject Prefill Advanced Heparin Lock Flush, SASH Normal Saline and Heparin
AcidFree, Alka-Mints, Alka-Seltzer, Alka-Seltzer Heartburn Relief, Alkets , Antacid Fast Dissolve, Calcarb 600, Calci-Chew , Calci-Mix , Calcium Antacid, Cal-Gest , Caltrate, Maalox, Maalox Antacid Barrier, Maalox Quick Dissolve, Mylanta Children's, Nephro-Calci , Pepto-Bismol Children's, Rolaids Extra Strength, Titralac, Titralac Extra Strength, Tums, Tums Chewy Bites , Tums Cool Relief, Tums E-X, Tums Freshers, Tums Kids, Tums Lasting Effects, Tums Smooth Dissolve, Tums Smoothies, Tums Ultra
Calphron, Eliphos, PhosLo, Phoslyra
RenaGel, Renvela
Calcidol, Calciferol, D3 Vitamin, DECARA, Deltalin, Dialyvite Vitamin D, Dialyvite Vitamin D3, Drisdol, D-Vita, Enfamil D-Vi-Sol, Ergo D, Fiber with Vitamin D3 Gummies Gluten-Free, Happy Sunshine Vitamin D3, MAXIMUM D3, PureMark Naturals Vitamin D, Replesta, Replesta Children's, Super Happy SUNSHINE Vitamin D3, Thera-D 2000, Thera-D 4000, Thera-D Rapid Repletion, THERA-D SPORT, UpSpring Baby Vitamin D, UpSpring Baby Vitamin D3, YumVs, YumVs Kids ZERO, YumVs ZERO
Fiber Therapy, GenFiber , Geri-Mucil, Hydrocil , Konsyl, Metamucil, Metamucil MultiHealth, Mucilin , Natural Fiber Laxative, Natural Fiber Therapy, Reguloid
Numoisyn, Saliva Substitute
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