Published by
Emory Department of Medicine

What is hemodialysis? 

— Hemodialysis is a treatment for kidney failure. Normally, the kidneys work to filter the blood and remove waste and excess salt and water. Kidney failure, also called “end-stage renal disease,” is when the kidneys stop working completely.

With hemodialysis, a machine takes over the job of the kidneys. The machine pumps blood out of the body, filters it, and returns it to the body. People have hemodialysis at least 3 times a week.

When do I prepare for hemodialysis? 

— You will need to start preparing a few months before you begin hemodialysis treatment.

How do I prepare for hemodialysis? 

— You prepare for hemodialysis by talking with your doctor, making certain choices, and having surgery.

Before you start hemodialysis, you will need to choose where you have it. Most people can choose between having hemodialysis at a dialysis center (in a hospital or clinic) or at home. If you plan to have hemodialysis at home, you will need to get your home ready. You will need a dialysis machine and supplies. You might need to make changes to your home’s plumbing or electricity.

You also need to prepare your body for hemodialysis by having surgery ahead of time. Your doctor will create an “access,” which is a way for the blood to leave and return to your body during hemodialysis. An access is usually created under the skin in the lower part of the arm. An access needs time to heal before it can be used.

There are 3 different types of access:

●AV fistula – Most people get this type of access. To make this access, a doctor does surgery to connect an artery directly to a vein. An AV fistula needs to heal for 2 to 4 months or more before it can be used for dialysis.

●AV graft – To make this access, a doctor uses a rubber tube to connect an artery to a vein. An AV graft needs to heal for 2 weeks before it can be used for dialysis.

●Central venous catheter – To make this access, a doctor puts a tube in a large vein (usually in the neck). This access is usually used only short-term or if people don’t have any other access. It doesn’t work as well as an AV fistula or AV graft.

How do I take care of my access? 

— That depends on the type of access you have. If you have a central venous catheter, the dialysis nurse will cover the catheter site with a clean dressing and waterproof bandage each time you have dialysis. You should keep the dressing and bandage in place until the next dialysis session.

If you have an AV fistula or graft, here is what you should do:

●Wash it with soap and warm water every day and before each dialysis treatment.

●Check it every day to make sure that it’s working normally and blood is flowing through it. When your access is working normally, you should be able to feel a vibration (called a “thrill”) over the area.

●Be careful with the arm that has the fistula or graft. It’s important that you not get an injury on that arm.

●Do not scratch or pick at your access.

●Do not wear tight clothes or jewelry on the arm with the access.

●Do not sleep on the arm with the access.

●Do not let anyone take blood from or measure blood pressure in the arm with the access.

Problems can sometimes happen with an AV fistula or graft access. Call your doctor or nurse if:

●You don’t feel a vibration – This could mean that your access has stopped working or closed up.

●Your access is red or warm – This could mean that your access is infected.

●Your access bleeds a lot after hemodialysis.

This educational content was put together by Dr. Carlo Oller (Emergency Physician) as part of a project to accumulate quality patient education about different conditions under one website for free. You can find this, and many other educational content at www.patienteducation.video

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