The Essentials of ECMO: Understanding Who Needs Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation


March, 2024


In the realm of advanced medical interventions, Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) stands as a beacon of hope and a lifeline for patients facing severe respiratory and cardiac challenges. This groundbreaking technology has revolutionized critical care, providing a temporary means of oxygenation and circulation for individuals whose own respiratory and cardiac systems are compromised. 

The Facts Behind ECMO

When the lungs or heart struggle to function adequately, the body's oxygen supply gets compromised. ECMO steps in to bridge this gap. That's how it functions:
  • Blood Removal: A thin tube (cannula) is inserted into a large vein, usually in the groin or neck. This cannula removes blood from the body.
  • Oxygenation and Removal of Carbon Dioxide: The blood is then pumped through a machine that acts like an artificial lungs. Here, fresh oxygen is added to the blood, and carbon dioxide, a waste product, is removed.
  • Blood Return: The oxygen-rich blood is then pumped back into the body through another cannula, usually placed in a major artery.

Who Needs ECMO?

ECMO is a complex and resource-intensive treatment reserved for critically ill patients whose lungs or heart have suffered severe damage. Here are some common scenarios where ECMO might be considered:
  • Severe Respiratory Failure: This can be caused by conditions like pneumonia, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), or inhalation injuries.
  • Cardiogenic Shock: When the heart weakens and fails to pump blood effectively.
  • Post-operative Support: Sometimes, ECMO can be used to support patients after heart or lung surgery.

The ECMO Journey

Being on ECMO is a physically and emotionally demanding experience. Here's a glimpse of what a patient might encounter:
  • Intensive Care Unit (ICU): ECMO patients require constant monitoring and specialized care, so they reside in the ICU.
  • Risks and Complications: While life-saving, ECMO carries risks like bleeding, infection, and blood clots.
  • Sedation and Ventilation: Patients are often sedated and may require mechanical ventilation alongside ECMO.
  • Recovery and Rehabilitation: The goal is for the patient's own lungs and heart to recover enough to come off ECMO. Depending on the underlying condition, recovery time can vary significantly.

The Future of ECMO

ECMO technology is constantly evolving. Here are some exciting possibilities:
  • Minimally Invasive Techniques: Minimally invasive cannulation methods are being explored to reduce complications.
  • Portable ECMO Systems: Portable ECMO systems could allow for faster deployment and potentially wider use.
  • Long-Term ECMO Support: Advancements might pave the way for ECMO to bridge longer gaps while organs recover.


ECMO is a remarkable medical technology offering a lifeline to critically ill patients. While not a cure, it provides a chance for lungs and hearts to heal. As research continues, ECMO's effectiveness and accessibility are likely to improve, offering hope for a future where more lives can be saved.



Dr Deepak Gowda

Consultant- Robotic Cardiac Surgeon

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