Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation

What is Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO)?

Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) is a life support system that provides an artificial form of respiration in case a person’s heart or lungs can no longer provide adequate oxygen to the body. It works by removing blood from the body, oxygenating it outside the body, and then returning it to the body. ECMO is sometimes referred to as extracorporeal life support (ECLS).

How is ECMO used?

ECMO is typically used for people who suffer from serious, usually life-threatening heart and/or lung conditions such as severe acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) or a massive heart attack. ECMO acts as a bridge to transplantation in many cases, helps to stabilize vital organs, and can often improve outcomes.

Components of ECMO

ECMO systems consist of several components, including:

  • A pump, which circulates the patient’s blood between the body and the oxygenation unit
  • An oxygenator, which adds oxygen to the patient’s blood while removing carbon dioxide
  • A control unit, which monitors and adjusts the ECMO system
  • A series of tubes, which connect the components to the patient

Benefits of ECMO

ECMO has several potential benefits, including:

  • Improves oxygenation of critically ill patients, even those with significantly impaired oxygenation
  • Provides temporary or permanent relief from ventilation
  • Provides time for the lungs to heal in cases of severe ARDS so that regular breathing can resume
  • Aids in the recovery of heart function for patients in cardiogenic shock
  • Improves outcomes in certain patients with serious heart and/or lung conditions

Risks of ECMO

As with all forms of medical therapy, there are also risks associated with ECMO. These risks include:

  • Air embolism - air getting into the bloodstream, which can cause serious damage
  • Infection - since the device is connected to the bloodstream, it can be a source of infection
  • Bleeding - as with any blood transfusion, there is a risk of bleeding
  • Organ damage - ECMO can damage certain organs, such as the kidneys or liver
  • Blood clots - ECMO can cause blood clots to form in the body, which can lead to stroke or other complications


ECMO is a valuable tool for treating serious heart and/or lung conditions. It is a life-saving treatment for some patients, and its use has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. However, it is not without risk and is best reserved for those cases in which the potential benefit outweighs the potential risks.