Background: Severe, acute respiratory failure in adults still carries a high mortality. In recent years, improved pulmonary support techniques have been used increasingly alongside conventional treatment. About 1000 such treatments are performed in Germany annually, and the number is rising rapidly. The two types of systems currently in use involve venovenous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) and extracorporeal carbon dioxide elimination.
Methods: The underlying principles, technical implementation, efficacy, and adverse effects of the new techniques are summarized in the light of a selective review of the literature, supplemented by the authors' personal experience. Recommendations are given for clinical use.
Results: Currently, only limited high-quality data (from prospective randomized trials) are available to support the use of either of these techniques in adults. Veno-venous ECMO systems can effectively secure gas exchange in patients with severe respiratory failure, with experienced centers reporting survival rates from 63% to 75%. Either pump-free arteriovenous systems or low-flow ECMO systems can be used for extracorporeal carbon dioxide elimination. Complications can be serious or life-threatening and must, therefore, be rapidly recognized and treated: these include vascular injury during cannulation, venous thrombosis in a cannulated vessel, an increased hemorrhagic tendency, and thrombocytopenia.
Conclusion: Modern miniaturized pulmonary support systems enable protective mechanical ventilation with low tidal volumes, reduce ventilator-associated lung injury, and can improve survival rates in critically ill patients with a manageable adverse effect profile.