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(Intermittent Hemodialysis)


L. Aimee Hechanova

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

Reviewed/Revised Sep 2022
Topic Resources

In hemodialysis, a patient’s blood is pumped into a dialyzer containing 2 fluid compartments configured as bundles of hollow fiber capillary tubes or as parallel, sandwiched sheets of semipermeable membranes. In either configuration, blood in the first compartment is pumped along one side of a semipermeable membrane while a crystalloid solution (dialysate) is pumped along the other side, in a separate compartment, in the opposite direction. (See Overview of Renal Replacement Therapy Overview of Renal Replacement Therapy Renal replacement therapy (RRT) replaces nonendocrine kidney function in patients with renal failure and is occasionally used for some forms of poisoning. Techniques include continuous hemofiltration... read more for other renal replacement therapies [RRTs].)

Concentration gradients of solute between blood and dialysate lead to desired changes in the patient’s serum solutes, such as a reduction in urea nitrogen and creatinine; an increase in bicarbonate; and equilibration of sodium, chloride, potassium, and magnesium. The dialysate compartment is under negative pressure relative to the blood compartment and has a higher osmolality to prevent filtration of dialysate into the bloodstream and to remove the excess fluid from the patient. The dialyzed blood is then returned to the patient.

The patient is usually systemically anticoagulated during hemodialysis to prevent blood from clotting in the dialysis machine. However, hemodialysis treatment may also be done with regional anticoagulation of the dialysis circuit (using heparin or trisodium citrate) or with saline flush, in which 50 to 100 mL of saline every 15 to 30 minutes clears the dialysis circuit of any blood clots.

Immediate objectives of hemodialysis are to

  • Correct electrolyte and fluid imbalances

  • Remove toxins

Longer-term objectives in patients with renal failure are to

  • Optimize the patient’s functional status, comfort, and blood pressure

  • Prevent complications of uremia

  • Prolong survival

The optimal “dose” of hemodialysis is uncertain, but most patients do well with 3 to 5 hours of hemodialysis 3 times a week. One way to assess the adequacy of each session is by measuring blood urea nitrogen (BUN) before and after each session. A 65% decrease of BUN from predialysis level ([predialysis BUN postdialysis BUN]/predialysis BUN × 100% is 65%) indicates an adequate session. Specialists may use other, more calculation-intensive formulas, such as Kt/V 1.2 (where K is the urea clearance of the dialyzer in mL/min, t is dialysis time in minutes, and V is volume of distribution of urea [which is about equal to total body water] in mL). Hemodialysis dose can be increased by increasing time on dialysis, blood flow, membrane surface area, and membrane porosity. Nightly hemodialysis sessions (6 to 8 hours, 3 to 6 days/week) and short (1.5 to 2.5 hours) daily sessions, when available, are used selectively for patients who have any of the following:

These daily sessions are most economically feasible if patients can do hemodialysis at home.

Renal Replacement Therapy–Related Calculators

Settings for hemodialysis

In-center hemodialysis is the most common type of hemodialysis in the United States. Most treatments are done 3 times a week for 3 to 5 hours per session. The main advantage of in-center hemodialysis is that the dialysis staff fully controls the dialysis treatment. The dialysis technician cannulates the fistula, decides how much fluid to remove, and does the entire dialysis treatment under the supervision of the dialysis nurse and the nephrologist.

In-center nocturnal hemodialysis is done 3 times a week for 6 to 8 hours per session. This modality is most suitable for patients who have high fluid gains, low blood pressure, or difficult-to-control phosphorus. It is also attractive for those who work during the day but who do not want to do home dialysis.

Home hemodialysis is as viable as in-center hemodialysis. Patients treated with home hemodialysis have longer survival and better control of hypertension Hypertension Hypertension is sustained elevation of resting systolic blood pressure (≥ 130 mm Hg), diastolic blood pressure (≥ 80 mm Hg), or both. Hypertension with no known cause (primary; formerly, essential... read more Hypertension , phosphorus and fluid levels, and better quality of life than with in-center hemodialysis. Home hemodialysis is most commonly done 5 to 7 days a week for about 2 hours per session. However, home hemodialysis can also be done on a 3-times-per-week daytime schedule or on a nocturnal schedule. Most home hemodialysis programs require a care partner capable of helping in case help is needed. As with peritoneal dialysis Peritoneal Dialysis Peritoneal dialysis uses the peritoneum as a natural permeable membrane through which water and solutes can equilibrate. Compared to hemodialysis, peritoneal dialysis is Less physiologically... read more , home hemodialysis requires more patient involvement than in-center hemodialysis.

Vascular access for dialysis

Hemodialysis is usually done through a surgically created arteriovenous fistula.

Surgically created arteriovenous fistulas are better than central venous catheters because they are more durable and less likely to become infected. But they are also prone to complications (thrombosis, infection, aneurysm, or pseudoaneurysm). A newly created fistula may take 2 to 3 months to mature and become usable. However, additional time may be needed for fistula revision, so in patients with chronic kidney disease Chronic Kidney Disease Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is long-standing, progressive deterioration of renal function. Symptoms develop slowly and in advanced stages include anorexia, nausea, vomiting, stomatitis, dysgeusia... read more Chronic Kidney Disease , the fistula is best created at least 6 months before the anticipated need for dialysis. The surgical procedure anastomoses the radial, brachial, or femoral artery to an adjacent vein in an end-of-the-vein to the side-of-the-artery fashion. When the adjacent vein is not suitable for access creation, a piece of prosthetic graft is used. For patients who have poor veins, an autogenous saphenous vein graft is also an option.

A central vein catheter can be used for dialysis if an arteriovenous fistula has not yet been created or is not ready for use or if creation of an arteriovenous fistula is impossible. The primary disadvantages of central vein catheters are a relatively narrow caliber that does not allow for blood flow high enough to achieve optimal clearance and a high risk of catheter-site infection and thrombosis. Central venous catheterization for hemodialysis is best done by using the right internal jugular vein. Most internal jugular vein catheters remain useful for 2 to 6 weeks if strict aseptic skin care is practiced and if the catheter is used only for hemodialysis. Catheters with a subcutaneous tunnel and fabric cuff have a longer life span (29 to 91% functional at 1 year) and may be useful for patients in whom creation of an arteriovenous fistula is impossible.

Vascular access complications

Complications of vascular access include

  • Infection

  • Stenosis

  • Thrombosis (often in a stenotic passage)

  • Aneurysm or pseudoaneurysm

These complications significantly limit the quality of hemodialysis that can be delivered, increase long-term morbidity and mortality, and are common enough that patients and practitioners should be vigilant for suggestive changes. These changes include pain, edema, erythema, breaks in the skin overlying the access, absence of bruit and pulse in the access, hematoma around the access, and prolonged bleeding from the dialysis cannula puncture site. Infection is treated with antibiotics, surgery, or both.

The fistula may be monitored for signs of impending failure by serial Doppler dilution blood flow measurements, thermal or urea dilution techniques, or by measurement of the static venous chamber pressures. One of these tests is usually recommended at least monthly. Treatment of stenosis, thrombosis, pseudoaneurysm, or aneurysm may involve angioplasty, stenting, or surgery.

Dialysis complications

The most common complication of dialysis is

  • Hypotension

Hypotension has multiple causes, including too-rapid water removal, osmotic fluid shifts across cell membranes, acetate in the dialysate, heat-related vasodilation, allergic reactions, sepsis, and underlying conditions (eg, autonomic neuropathy, cardiomyopathy with poor ejection fraction, myocardial ischemia, arrhythmias).

Other frequent complications include

In most cases, these complications occur for unknown reasons, but some may be part of a first-use syndrome (when the patient’s blood is exposed to cuprophane or cellulose membranes in the dialyzer) or dialysis dysequilibrium syndrome, a syndrome thought to be caused by too-rapid removal of urea and other osmolytes from the serum, causing osmotic movement of fluid into the brain. More severe cases of dialysis dysequilibrium manifest as disorientation, restlessness, blurred vision, confusion, seizures, and even death.

Dialysis-related amyloidosis affects patients who have been on hemodialysis for years and manifests as carpal tunnel syndrome, bone cysts, arthritis, and cervical spondyloarthropathy. Dialysis-related amyloidosis is believed to be less common with the high-flux dialyzers in wide use today because beta-2 microglobulin (the protein causing the amyloidosis) is removed more effectively with these dialyzers.



Overall adjusted annual mortality in hemodialysis-dependent patients is about 16%. The 5-year survival rate is lower for patients with diabetes than for patients with glomerulonephritis. Death is generally mostly attributable to cardiovascular disease, followed by infection and withdrawal from hemodialysis. Nonhemodialysis contributors to mortality include comorbidities (eg, hyperparathyroidism, diabetes, undernutrition, other chronic disorders), older age, and late referral for dialysis.

NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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