Extra corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)

The heart and lungs of some very sick patients don’t function properly. This means that the blood circulating in the body is not properly oxygenated. Extra corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a machine that helps to do the job of the heart and lungs.

  • When the ECMO machine supports the lungs only it is called “veno-venous” or “VV” ECMO.
  • When ECMO supports both the lungs and the heart it is called “veno-arterial” or “VA” ECMO.

First, large tubes are inserted into large veins (or veins and arteries) in the groin. The blood flows into the machine through the tubes. The machine filters the blood and adds oxygen and removes carbon dioxide. The blood is then returned back to the patient.

ECMO is a temporary solution. It helps support the patient while the underlying problem is treated. ECMO can not be used for all patients. If the underlying cause is not treatable then ECMO is not appropriate. ECMO has a high risk of potential complications. That means it is only used when there is a clear benefit for the patient.

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This topic was reviewed by an intensive care medicine specialist in July 2022.

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