What are the risks of ECMO?

Risks and complications of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)

ECMO can be life-saving, but there are risks and complications. A physician on the ECMO team will talk about these risks and complications at the time when we ask your permission to place your loved one on ECMO.

Bleeding from ECMO

The most common complication is bleeding. Bleeding can occur inside or outside the body and is most dangerous when it happens around the brain. We will use ultrasounds to look for bleeding, especially with infants. We monitor older children and adults by looking for changes in how they act and their ability to do certain things like squeezing their hand or wiggling their toes.

The ECMO specialist and ICU nurse are specially trained to handle any problems that happen with the ECMO pump. There may be a time when your love one may need to come off the ECMO machine temporarily to fix a problem.

Infection from ECMO

Whenever a tube is placed into a vein or artery there is a chance of infection. The medical team conducts many tests to recognize an infection and give medicine to treat it.

Blood clots in ECMO tubing

Sometimes small blood clots and air bubbles can appear inside the ECMO tubing. The ECMO team studies the ECMO equipment every hour, looking for clots and bubbles.

By preventing clots and bubbles from forming, we help reduce the chance of an air bubble reaching an organ or a blood clot blocking a blood vessel so that blood can’t reach an organ.

Possible complications from ECMO in infants and small children

In infants and small children, the surgeon will put a cannula in the main vessel that supplies blood to the brain and neck. This vessel is one of two carotid arteries. When ECMO is stopped, this carotid artery may be tied off, leaving only the other carotid artery to supply the brain with blood. On rare occasions this condition can result in a brain injury like a stroke.

Last reviewed: 
June 2017

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