What is ECMO?

ECMO stands for ExtraCorporeal Membrane Oxygenation. You may also hear it called ECLS, which stands for ExtraCorporeal Life Support. It is a heart and lung machine used to support the body when a patient’s own organs are too sick to do the job. Although ECMO itself will not cure a patient, it gives him or her the time needed to heal. ECMO may be an option only after the care team has tried all other treatments such as a breathing machine (called a ventilator or “vent”), medicines to support the heart and lungs, and/or special gases to relax the blood vessels between the heart and the lungs.

There are 2 main types of ECMO support used to either support the lungs or support the lungs and the heart together. A patient’s physician team will chose the type of ECMO most appropriate to each patient’s needs.

ECMO is generally used until the heart or the lungs recover enough to provide enough oxygen and blood supply. Patients sometimes receive ECMO support for days or weeks awaiting organ recovery. Some patients with catastrophic heart or lung injury do not recover and therefore cannot survive if ECMO support is discontinued. Physicians will frequently reevaluate if ECMO is allowing the patient to improve heart and lung function, and will continue ECMO support as long as there is evidence of improvement. If doctors realize that ECMO is not helping a patient get better, or if continuing to use ECMO might hurt a patient, ECMO support will be removed. In rare instances lung and/or heart lung transplantation may be considered.

The Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO) was founded in 1989 to provide a way to exchange ideas amongst clinicians for the optimal use of ECMO support. ELSO recognizes that part of this optimal support involves the education of not only clinicians, but also the families and friends of patients supported on ECMO. Thus, you will find links to ELSO webpages with details about ECMO support for different patient populations: neonatal-pediatric patients and adult patients.

More detailed content for families is currently in development. If you would like to help add content, please click here to Get Involved.