Access Complications

Complications of hemodialysis (HD) access create significant problems for renal practitioners, the healthcare system and especially for individuals living with end stage renal disease. Chronic HD access complications include thrombosis, infection, ischemic steal syndrome, aneurysms, venous hypertension, hematomas, heart failure, and prolonged bleeding and result in frequent interventions and increased morbidity and mortality1. In addition, access interventions are often costly, challenging and may require specialized surgical expertise.

Thrombosis and infection are the most common vascular access dysfunctions2 and thrombosis is the most common cause of vascular access loss. Thrombosis and infection occur more frequently in arteriovenous grafts (AVG) and dialysis catheters than in arteriovenous fistulae (AVF). The Dialysis Outcomes and Practice Patterns Study (DOPPS) reports that AVG are 3.8 times more likely to require thrombectomy and 3.0 times more likely to require access intervention than AVF1,3. AVF thrombosis rates remain in the range of 0.2 to 0.8 per patient year and AVG thrombosis rates are typically in the range of 0.6 to 1.2 per patient year4. Although, the United States Renal Data System (USRDS) data confirm that AVF have the lowest complication rates of any available vascular access (0.64 procedures per patient year versus 1.61 for AVG5,6 ; once a primary fistula is established, thrombosis is the leading cause of failure in approximately 40% of cases1,7.

Infectious complications of vascular access are a major source of morbidity and mortality among HD patients. Previous studies have reported infection as a common cause of death; accounting for 9.5 to 36% of deaths in HD patients8. Vascular access infections (most commonly found in patients utilizing dialysis catheters) are reported to be the source in up to 48 to 73% of all bacteremias in HD patients9. The risk of bacteremia with tunnel cuffed catheters averages 2.3 per 1000 catheter days. This translates into an approximate 20 to 25% bacteremia risk over the average duration of use1, 10. The risk of infection averages 10% in AVG, 5% in transposed fistulas and less than 2% in non-transposed fistulas1.

Ischemic steal syndrome secondary to a HD arteriovenous access occurs in approximately 5 to 10% of cases1,11. The pathophysiological basis of this condition is a marked decrease or reversal of flow in the arterial segment distal to the AVF or AVG, induced by the low resistance of the fistula outflow11. Mild cases can be observed closely, as most of them will reverse in a few weeks; however, severe cases require immediate intervention to prevent severe ischemic complications including ischemic neuropathy and ischemic gangrene with the potential need for amputation. Several surgical and endovascular treatments have been used including: access ligation, banding, elongation, distal arterial ligation, and distal revascularization-interval ligation. The best reported results, for treatment of dialysis access-associated steal syndrome with maintenance of access function and reversal of symptoms, have been obtained with the distal revascularization-interval ligation (DRIL)11 and the endoluminal-assisted revision (MILLER) procedures12.

Aneurysms and pseudoaneurysms, resulting from improper needle site rotation or as complications of more proximal stenosis, are less frequent complications of vascular access. AVG peudoaneurysms can develop profuse bleeding and require emergency surgical intervention. Appropriate selection of dialysis staff for access cannulation together with cannulation training and education for staff members and patients may reduce the risk of this complication. In addition, visibly tortuous access shape is a major cosmetic concern for many patients.

Venous hypertension occurs in approximately 3% of fistulas and grafts and is usually related to central vein stenosis (CVS)1. Percutaneous transluminal angioplasty of a CVS, supplemented by stent placement as needed, is effective and considered the primary treatment for such lesions due to the lack of viable and safe surgical options13.

Hematomas result from needle infiltration. Needle infiltration of new fistulae is a relatively frequent complication, which occurs most commonly in older patients14. If the access has been assessed as mature for venipuncture, poor cannulation skills are often the root cause of infiltrations. Sample policies and procedures for cannulation of new AVF are available at

High-output heart failure from fistula placement occurs if fistula flow exceeds 20% of cardiac output2. This complication is extremely rare (less than 1% of case series)1.

Prolonged access bleeding should not be overlooked, and should raise suspicion of high intra-access pressure, outflow stenosis or local inflammation. Prolonged bleeding may also be caused by excessive heparinization of the blood circuit, access laceration during previous cannulation or skin atrophy15. Clinical examination of the site should be performed and previous static or dynamic venous pressure measurements should be reviewed.
Vascular access management has improved dramatically over the past decades4. Promising new therapies including catheter lock solutions, biological tissue engineering and the merging of current access conduits into a singular device are currently under development and evaluation. It is hoped that these and other new technologies may decrease the future incidence of vascular access complications.


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  6. U.S. Renal Data System, USRDS 2007 Annual Data Report: Atlas of Chronic Kidney Disease and End-Stage Renal Disease in the United States, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Bethesda, MD, 2007
  7. Albers FJ. Causes of hemodialysis access failure. Adv Ren Replace Ther 1:107-118, 1994
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  9. Nassar GM and Ayus JC. Infectious complications of the hemodialysis access. Kidney Int 60:1-13, 2001
  10. Saad TF. Bacteremia associated with tunneled, cuffed hemodialysis catheters. Am J Kidney Dis 34:1114-1118, 1999
  11. Schanzer H and Eisenberg D. Management of steal syndrome resulting from dialysis access. Sem in Vascular Surgery 17:45-49, 2004
  12. Goel N, Miller GA, Jotwani MC, Licht J, Schur Iand Arnold WP. Minimally invasive limited ligation endoluminal-assisted revision (MILLER) for treatment of dialysis access-associated steal syndrome. Kidney Int 70:765–770, 2006
  13. Levit RD, Cohen RM, Kwak A, Shlansky-Goldberg RD, Clark TWI, Patel AA, Stavropoulos SW, Mondschein JI, Solomon JA, Tuite CM, Trerotola SO. Asymptomatic central venous stenosis in hemodialysis patients. Radiology 238:1051-1056, 2006
  14. Allon M. Current management of vascular access. Clin J Am Soc Nephrol 2:786-800, 2007
  15. Vascular access guidelines. Retrieved from on February 16, 2009

P/N 101051-01 Rev. 00 3/2009