Explained: What is ECMO therapy and how is it useful for COVID-19 patients with lung damage

ECMO therapy and its usefulness for COVID-19 patients

The word ‘ECMO’ has received a lot of attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. ECMO or Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a complex machine that supports patients who have fallen severely ill due to COVID-19 and have developed acute pneumonia or lung damage. The machine pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body, allowing the lungs to rest and heal. The first successful use of ECMO was reported in 1972 as support for severe respiratory failure. Also Read: COVID-19: South African variant can break through Pfizer’s vaccine, says study conducted in Israel

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) therapy is usually given to heart patients who have undergone cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). It temporarily takes over the function of the heart and lungs during surgery, maintaining the circulation of blood and the oxygen content of the patient’s body. Also Read: COVID-19 vaccine: Pfizer jab is 100% effective in trial of children between ages 12-15 years

There are two types of ECMO

Veno-Venous (VV) ECMO: It is used to support the functions of the lungs. Here the machine takes blood from a vein and returns it to a vein.

Veno-Arterial (VA) ECMO: Here, the machine supports both the heart and the lungs. In this case, the procedure is more invasive than VV ECMO. It may also require the carotid artery (the main artery from the heart to the brain) to be sealed later.

ECMO support for COVID-19 patients

In certain COVID cases, patients’ lungs can get damaged due to COVID induced Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), cytokine storm, and/or thrombophilia. Doctors take the patient on ECMO support in such cases to provide rest to the lung(s) until it heals on its own. In such cases, the ECMO machine acts as a secondary lung which oxygenates the blood from the patient’s body as healthy lungs do. Also Read: COVID-19 vaccination: Pregnant women pass immunity against coronavirus to their babies

Is ECMO useful in COVID cases?

There ECMO shows little usefulness for COVID patients who have developed ARDS. According to the reports, only around 18% of COVID-1q9 patients who develop ARDS survive after getting ECMO support. It has been said that people with comorbidities like advanced age, obesity etc should not be considered for ECMO machine support. Also Read: When can we assume to have coronavirus under control? Not, until there’re fewer than 100 COVID-related deaths a day!

Meanwhile, patients who are put on ECMO already have low immunity and are therefore susceptible to various secondary infections.


One of the major risks of ECMO treatment is bleeding. The process of removing the blood from the body and then pumping it back in through plastic tubing carries the danger of coagulation. To avoid this, a blood-thinning drug called Heparin is used, which, unfortunately, may cause bleeding and eventually death.

Other risks include infections at the sites where the tubes enter the body, increased chances of stroke and other transfusion problems.


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