Postoperative pulmonary complications

Br J Anaesth. 2017 Mar 1;118(3):317-334. doi: 10.1093/bja/aex002.


Postoperative pulmonary complications (PPCs) are common, costly, and increase patient mortality. Changes to the respiratory system occur immediately on induction of general anaesthesia: respiratory drive and muscle function are altered, lung volumes reduced, and atelectasis develops in > 75% of patients receiving a neuromuscular blocking drug. The respiratory system may take 6 weeks to return to its preoperative state after general anaesthesia for major surgery. Risk factors for PPC development are numerous, and clinicians should be aware of non-modifiable and modifiable factors in order to recognize those at risk and optimize their care. Many validated risk prediction models are described. These have been useful for improving our understanding of PPC development, but there remains inadequate consensus for them to be useful clinically. Preventative measures include preoperative optimization of co-morbidities, smoking cessation, and correction of anaemia, in addition to intraoperative protective ventilation strategies and appropriate management of neuromuscular blocking drugs. Protective ventilation includes low tidal volumes, which must be calculated according to the patient's ideal body weight. Further evidence for the most beneficial level of PEEP is required, and on-going randomized trials will hopefully provide more information. When PEEP is used, it may be useful to precede this with a recruitment manoeuvre if atelectasis is suspected. For high-risk patients, surgical time should be minimized. After surgery, nasogastric tubes should be avoided and analgesia optimized. A postoperative mobilization, chest physiotherapy, and oral hygiene bundle reduces PPCs.

Keywords: complication; mechanical; postoperative; risk factors; ventilation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Lung
  • Lung Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Lung Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Postoperative Complications / physiopathology*
  • Postoperative Complications / prevention & control*
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Risk Factors