Clinical controversies in anticoagulation monitoring and antithrombin supplementation for ECMO

Crit Care. 2020 Jan 20;24(1):19. doi: 10.1186/s13054-020-2726-9.


During extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a delicate balance is required to titrate systemic anticoagulation to prevent thrombotic complications within the circuit and prevent bleeding in the patient. Despite focused efforts to achieve this balance, the frequency of both thrombotic and bleeding events remains high. Anticoagulation is complicated to manage in this population due to the complexities of the hemostatic system that are compounded by age-related developmental hemostatic changes, variable effects of the etiology of critical illness on hemostasis, and blood-circuit interaction. Lack of high-quality data to guide anticoagulation management in ECMO patients results in marked practice variability among centers. One aspect of anticoagulation therapy that is particularly challenging is the use of antithrombin (AT) supplementation for heparin resistance. This is especially controversial in the neonatal and pediatric population due to the baseline higher risk of bleeding in this cohort. The indication for AT supplementation is further compounded by the potential inaccuracy of the diagnosis of heparin resistance based on the standard laboratory parameters used to assess heparin effect. With concerns regarding the adverse impact of bleeding and thrombosis, clinicians and institutions are faced with making difficult, real-time decisions aimed at optimizing anticoagulation in this setting. In this clinically focused review, the authors discuss the complexities of anticoagulation monitoring and therapeutic intervention for patients on ECMO and examine the challenges surrounding AT supplementation given both the historical and current perspectives summarized in the literature on these topics.

Keywords: Anticoagulation; Antithrombin; Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anticoagulants / analysis*
  • Anticoagulants / blood
  • Antithrombins / standards
  • Antithrombins / therapeutic use*
  • Blood Coagulation / drug effects
  • Child
  • Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation / methods*
  • Factor Xa Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Factor Xa Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Hemostatics / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / methods
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / standards*
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / trends
  • Partial Thromboplastin Time / methods
  • Whole Blood Coagulation Time / methods


  • Anticoagulants
  • Antithrombins
  • Factor Xa Inhibitors
  • Hemostatics