Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Should I start dialysis? Should I stop dialysis?

Over the last week, this issue has come up three times. One of my office patients who's chronic kidney disease (CKD) is at stage 4-5 (1 being least severe, 5 being the worst) decided not to proceed with dialysis. One patient in the NH decided to stop dialysis and another in the NH (nursing home) had not been on dialysis ever. All had stage 5 CKD. In all three situations, after a very careful family discussion, the decision was made against pursuing dialysis. Obviously, this is a big decision.

So what does dialysis do and why do people need it? The short version is that dialysis takes over the functions of failing kidneys: getting rid of excess potassium, excess fluid and general toxins.

What is involved in starting dialysis? First you need access because it is a blood filter machine. So either a port placed in the chest that sticks out, an artificial graft placed in the arm or a modification to the bodies own vessels called a fistula in the arm. Then usually, three times a week one would go to a dialysis center for 3-4 hours to get the blood filtered. More is involved than this, but this is the short version.

What happens if you are on dialysis? Well it can be very tiring, there can be complications such as nausea, bleeding, infection, clotting of the graft/fistula/port. It is almost always lifetime unless someone gets a kidney transplant.

What happens if you don't do dialysis? Well this is what is interesting. Many people do just fine. Even with the most severe cases of CKD. It depends, if someone is initiating dialysis because they have had recurrent episodes of being fluid overloaded, having a high potassium or being confused then they will not do so well without dialysis. But if a patient is stable and is just being told to do dialysis to be safe, we're learning that older patients may do okay without dialysis for years.

Without any question, dialysis is a life saving measure. It can extend life in most people. In some who have complications, it can shorten life just like any other medical procedure that goes wrong. It has been studied that older adults who initiate dialysis tend to decline in function over time. Not necessarily more rapidly or less rapidly than those who do not do dialysis, but needing dialysis is a sign of frailty that starting dialysis will not reverse. In other words, dialysis will not help somebody gain function that they have lost. It will not get someone back to how they were before even if that is 3 months before. (Generally speaking). There is more and more discussion among physicians and older adults about not starting dialysis and using watchful waiting in the meantime. For those who do not need dialysis, it is certainly an option to just watch it, knowing that there is some risk involved in doing so.

Here's a good article to read.

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