What is Dialysis?

A patient undergoes dialysis treatment at Coastal Vascular & Interventional

Kidney disease is on the rise. Known as renal failure, approximately 37 million Americans, or one in seven, currently suffer from this dangerous illness, though about 90% are undiagnosed. Because of this, kidney disease is one of the top causes of death in the U.S., killing more people than breast or prostate cancer. 

The kidneys serve the critical function of eliminating waste and toxins from the body. When the kidneys fail, a specialized treatment known as dialysis is employed to remove those toxins. 

This blog will take a closer look at the chronic illness of kidney failure and the corresponding, life-saving treatment of dialysis.

What Are the Kidneys?

To understand dialysis, we must first understand how the kidneys work. The kidneys are two fist-sized, bean-shaped organs that are located just below the ribcage inside the body. “The kidneys function, essentially, to filter your blood. They pull out all the byproducts of your cells.” 

When the kidneys are functioning properly, they filter about one-half cup of blood every minute. As the blood circulates through the kidneys, these natural filtering devices pull out extra water and waste products, making urine, which is the waste that the body expels. Within that waste is found salts, minerals and other byproducts that can quickly build up in the body and become toxic. 

Kidneys also produce hormones that help with blood pressure and red blood cell production as well as strengthening bones. 

When kidneys start to fail, the whole body can be put at risk. One of the best treatments for failing kidneys is a medical treatment known as dialysis.

A nurse adjusts the equipment for a patients dialysis at Coastal Vascular & Interventional

How Does Dialysis Work?

Dialysis is a mechanical way to filter the blood and replace the kidney’s function. Dr. Risely points out that dialysis can save your life. “If you don’t filter your blood, these toxins build up and you will eventually die.” A regular series of dialysis treatments can replace the function of kidneys. 

There are two types of dialysis treatment:

  • Hemodialysis, which pulls the blood into an external machine where it is filtered and returned to the body.
  • Peritoneal dialysis, which pumps special fluids into the abdomen to pull out waste products from the blood.

Dialysis is typically prescribed when patients are in end-stage kidney failure, having lost up to 90% of the function of these organs. While a kidney transplant may be a desirable goal, dialysis can filter the blood for a time and make patients more comfortable. 

Dialysis treatment can:

  • Remove waste products from the blood and keep these levels from rising in the body.
  • Keep a safer level of minerals in the body, including sodium and potassium.
  • Help control blood pressure.

It’s important to note that kidney failure isn’t always permanent. Sometimes the kidneys can recover. However, with chronic kidney failure the kidneys cannot repair themselves even with treatment. This means patients will need regular dialysis treatments for the rest of their lives.

In an exam room, a doctor performs an external examination of a patient's kidney

Why Would Kidneys Fail?

Dr. Risely says that diabetes and high blood pressure can damage the kidneys and impede their function. “Those are the two most common things that cause renal failure in the United States.” In fact, 76% of all dialysis patients have one or both of these conditions. 

Other reasons for kidney failure can include:

  • A disease called glomerulonephritis, which damages the filtering processes within the organs.
  • Inherited illnesses, such as polycystic kidney disease.
  • Immune diseases like lupus.
  • An enlarged prostate or kidney stones, which obstruct the filtering process.
  • Chronic kidney infections.

Patients struggling with the health of their kidneys work with nephrologists who specialize in the renal system of the body.

A nurse assists with a patient's dialysis

What is it Like to Have a Dialysis Treatment?

There are two different processes for dialysis, depending if the patient receives hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis. Dialysis treatments can be done in the doctor’s office, a dialysis center, or, sometimes, in the home. This process can take time; typically, patients can expect three visits a week, each lasting for three to four hours at a time.


The first step toward receiving dialysis is for a doctor to make an access port into the blood vessels of the arm or leg. Typically, this process creates a fistula, which joins an artery to a vein under the skin. There are rarely complications from this process. In the event that blood vessels will not support this treatment, the doctor may use a grafting procedure with a soft plastic tube to create the port site where the dialysis machine can connect into the body. 

When patients visit the clinic for dialysis treatment, they are set up with the dialysis machine for the procedure. This process takes time, so patients can relax and use the time to read, watch TV, play video games or take part in other stationary activities while the machine does its work. 

Peritoneal Dialysis

The first step in peritoneal dialysis is for the doctor to place a catheter into the abdomen to allow for the insertion of the special fluid, called dialysate, that cleanses the blood. A clinician will leave the fluid in the abdomen to cleanse the blood and then remove it back through the catheter to be discarded. 

The team at Coastal Vascular & Interventional, PLLC work closely with our patients to maintain their kidney health. If you’ve been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, we are here to help.