Although extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) was used in many patients following its introduction in 1972, most hospitals had abandoned this experimental treatment for adult patients. Recently, improvements in the ECMO circuitry rendered it more biocompatible. The surprisingly low mortality in patients with severe acute respiratory distress syndrome who were treated with ECMO in the influenza A/H1N1 pandemic of 2009 resurrected interest in ECMO in many intensive care units around the world.
This article reviews the different techniques of ECMO, the indications, contraindications and complications of its use, its role in poisoned patients and the ethics of its use.
We searched Pubmed, Toxnet, Cochrane database and Embase from 1966 to September 2012 using the search terms (''extracorporeal membrane oxygenation'', 'extracorporeal life support', 'ECMO', 'ECLS', 'assist-device', and 'intox*' or 'poison*'). These searches identified 242 papers of which 116 described ECMO in conditions other than intoxications or were reviews. In total 46 publications selected for this manuscript were case reports or case series involving poisoned patients. ECMO TECHNIQUES: Two types of ECMO are used: veno-venous ECMO (VV-ECMO) or veno-arterial ECMO (VA-ECMO). VV-ECMO is used for patients with severe ARDS to secure adequate oxygenation of the organs while protecting the lungs from harmful ventilation pressures or prolonged inspiratory fraction of oxygen. VA-ECMO can be used whenever the patient remains in shock despite adequate fluid resuscitation and is refractory to administration of inotropes and vasopressors.
The organ support that can be applied with ECMO makes it especially useful in patients with severe poisoning as the clinical impact of the intoxication is often temporary; ECMO can be used as a 'bridge to recovery'.
Absolute contraindications are uncontrolled coagulopathy and severe intracranial bleeding, which precludes the use of anticoagulation therapy. Relative contraindications to ECMO include advanced age, severe irreversible brain injury, untreatable metastatic cancer, severe organ dysfunction (some suggest a Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score > 15), and high pressure positive pressure ventilation for more than 7 days.
The most common complication of ECMO is either bleeding at the cannulation site (in VV-ECMO) or bleeding at the surgical entry site (in VA-ECMO). Overall bleeding complications currently occur in 10-36% patients, and intracranial haemorrhage is seen in up to 6% of patients. ECMO should be reserved, therefore, for the most severely ill poisoned patients with a high risk of death. ECMO in poisoned patients. There are no randomised trials of ECMO in poisoned patients with refractory shock or who have ARDS caused by an intoxication. VV-ECMO can be considered in patients with type l and ll respiratory failure. In patients with life-threatening haemodynamic instability, VA-ECMO can be considered when shock persists despite volume administration, inotropes and vasoconstrictors, and (sometimes) intra-aortic balloon counterpulsation. Typical examples include poisoning due to calcium channel antagonists, beta-blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, chloroquine and colchicine. ETHICS OF ECMO USE: It is only ethical to use such a costly intervention (£19,252 and US$ 31,000 per quality-adjusted life year) if the treatment has a real purpose such as a 'bridge to recovery', a 'bridge to transplant', or a 'bridge to permanent assist device' (in the case of persistent cardiac failure).
In the last decade, ECMO equipment has improved considerably, rendering it more biocompatible, and it has been used more frequently as an assist device for patients needing oxygenation as well as circulatory support. ECMO is considered a good salvage therapy for patients who are severely poisoned with ARDS or refractory circulatory shock.