In the United States there are about 486,000 people receiving dialysis treatments either at independent dialysis centers or in hospitals equipped with dialyzers.
Because so many Americans suffer from end-stage renal disease (ESRD) and are treated with dialysis, a lot of patients and their families have basic questions about the procedure.
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Top Questions About Dialysis
Who Needs Dialysis?
Dialysis is a treatment for patients with ESRD, also called kidney failure, which is a long-term outcome of chronic kidney disease (CKD). An umbrella term referring to multiple conditions that damage the kidneys, CKD leads to a buildup of waste in the body because of the kidney’s inability to properly filter the blood.
Healthy kidneys perform an array of functions including removing waste from the body, balancing the body’s fluids, and releasing hormones that regulate blood pressure and anemia. Patients with kidney disease go through several stages of progression with kidney function gradually worsening over time. When patients with CKD reach kidney failure, their kidneys filter on average at less than 15 percent the healthy rate.
At this stage, most patients will begin dialysis treatment.
What Is Dialysis?
As a treatment for patients with ESRD, the purpose of dialysis is to perform some functions of the kidneys. During the most common form of dialysis—hemodialysis—an artificial filter called a dialyzer is used to perform these functions:
- Remove waste, salt, and extra water
- Control blood pressure
- Regulate the balance of fluid in the body
A little at a time, a dialyzer extracts blood from a patient’s body. The blood is then cleaned with a fluid called dialysate, which filters out urea, creatine, potassium and any extra fluids in the blood. These treatments typically require 3 or 4 hours and are completed at a dialysis center.
Some patients do complete hemodialysis at home, but most home-care patients are treated with an alternative form of dialysis called peritoneal dialysis.
Is Dialysis a Cure for Kidney Failure?
Dialysis is not a cure for kidney failure, although it is a valuable treatment that can improve the quality of life for patients with ESRD and serves as a bridge to kidney transplant.
A patient on dialysis will likely need to continue treatments until they receive a kidney transplant which is considered curative for end stage renal disease.
For Patients Who Want to Stop Dialysis, Are There Alternative Treatments?
A person on regular dialysis for ESRD must not stop. For this group of patients, dialysis is keeping them alive. The only alternative treatment is a kidney transplant.
During a transplant, a healthy organ from either a deceased donor or a living donor is transplanted into the patient with ESRD. This healthy kidney will take over blood-filtering functions for the body, so dialysis is no longer required.
To begin the kidney transplant process, a patient with ESRD must be evaluated at a transplant center and added to the regional kidney transplant waiting list. More than 95,000 patients are on the waiting list nationally, so patients may wait several years for a deceased-donor transplant and will typically receive dialysis treatments during this time.
But patients can shorten their wait time if they identify a suitable living donor.
A living-donor kidney transplant typically has better outcomes than a deceased-donor transplant and often allows a transplant to take place within a few weeks to months, minimizing time spent on dialysis. It also makes a positive impact on the entire transplant community.
For more information about living-donor kidney transplant, visit UPMC.com/LivingDonorKidneyTransplant.
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About Transplant Services
Established in 1981, UPMC Transplant Services is one of the foremost organ transplant centers in the world. Our clinicians have performed more than 20,000 organ transplant procedures, including liver, kidney, pancreas, single and double lung, heart, and more. We are home to some of the world’s foremost transplant experts and have a long history of developing new antirejection therapies—so organ recipients can enjoy better health with fewer restrictions.