ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) is a type of artificial life support that can help a person whose lungs and heart aren’t functioning correctly. This process continuously pumps blood out of your body and sends it through a series of devices that add oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. The machine then pumps your blood back into your body.
ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) is a type of artificial life support that can help a person whose lungs and heart aren’t functioning correctly. ECMO continuously pumps blood out of your body and then sends it through devices that add oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. It then pumps the blood back into your body.
ECMO treatment can be especially valuable in making it possible for your heart and lungs to rest and heal from a respiratory infection, heart attack or trauma.
ECMO stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Extracorporeal means “outside the body.” The rest of the name refers to getting oxygen to your body’s cells.
During ECMO treatment, blood flows out of your body through a tube in a large blood vessel in your chest, near your groin or in your neck. A pump pushes your blood through tubes that carry it to a machine that adds oxygen and removes carbon dioxide. Then the machine pumps your blood back into your body.
ECMO treatment helps people who need support for their lungs, but it can also bypass both your heart and lungs.
Yes. ECMO is a complex setup that healthcare providers only use for people who need intensive or critical care. Mechanical ventilation devices are a type of life support, but they can only move air. They can’t add oxygen to and remove carbon dioxide directly from your blood. ECMO can exchange these gases similarly to how your lungs do.
Providers use ECMO for the following conditions:
Damage to your lungs can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome, limiting how well your lungs can put oxygen in and take carbon dioxide out of your blood. This can happen with:
Pulmonary embolism happens when a blood clot that formed somewhere in your body (usually your legs) travels to your lungs and gets stuck. This can keep blood from flowing through your lungs, which can cause deadly failure of your heart and lungs.
You may need ECMO treatment if you have injuries to your heart from trauma or other diseases or conditions. Some of these include:
Newborns and infants with heart and lung problems, especially babies born prematurely, often receive ECMO treatment.
ECMO can help serve as a “bridge” until a person can get a specific type of care or procedure. Healthcare providers use ECMO for someone waiting for a heart or lung transplant or at these times:
ECMO has become a significant asset in critical care units (CCUs) and intensive care units (ICUs) over the past 30 years. It’s also getting more use as an add-on to CPR. And critically ill people with COVID-19 have received ECMO.
About 500 hospitals worldwide can do ECMO and a little over half of them are in the United States.
Providers used ECMO more than 20,000 times worldwide in 2021, according to the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization.
An ECMO machine can be a life-saving tool for people who are critically ill because it can support their lungs and heart. This can have the following effects:
While an ECMO machine is an invaluable medical tool, it’s also one that has risks, some of them significant.
ECMO is less likely to help older people. Your healthcare provider can advise you on the age-related risks and benefits.
There are several conditions or circumstances where ECMO isn’t an option. These include:
People can stay on ECMO anywhere from days to weeks. The length of time that a person will spend on ECMO depends on why they need this treatment.
Healthcare providers will routinely check a person’s heart and lung functions while they’re on ECMO to make sure they’re in good condition and there are no complications. This also lets providers know how much longer to keep someone on ECMO.
Once a person shows signs of recovery, providers will begin weaning them off ECMO. In most cases, this process takes between two and five days.
ECMO isn’t meant for people who have no hope of recovery. Your provider is the best person to assess your condition. ECMO supports your body while recovery is underway. The only exception is to delay death for organ and tissue donation.
Yes, ECMO can help with compromised heart function. Alternatively, providers can use other support devices such as ventricular assist devices.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
ECMO is an option that can help many people who are critically ill with lung and heart problems. It’s not a new treatment, having been in use for decades. Modern medicine also has a better understanding today than ever before of how ECMO can help save lives. But it isn’t meant for everyone. Your healthcare provider can explain the potential benefits and risks and help you decide what’s best in your situation.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/29/2022.
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