Management of severe acute respiratory distress syndrome: a primer

Crit Care. 2023 Jul 18;27(1):289. doi: 10.1186/s13054-023-04572-w.


This narrative review explores the physiology and evidence-based management of patients with severe acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and refractory hypoxemia, with a focus on mechanical ventilation, adjunctive therapies, and veno-venous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (V-V ECMO). Severe ARDS cases increased dramatically worldwide during the Covid-19 pandemic and carry a high mortality. The mainstay of treatment to improve survival and ventilator-free days is proning, conservative fluid management, and lung protective ventilation. Ventilator settings should be individualized when possible to improve patient-ventilator synchrony and reduce ventilator-induced lung injury (VILI). Positive end-expiratory pressure can be individualized by titrating to best respiratory system compliance, or by using advanced methods, such as electrical impedance tomography or esophageal manometry. Adjustments to mitigate high driving pressure and mechanical power, two possible drivers of VILI, may be further beneficial. In patients with refractory hypoxemia, salvage modes of ventilation such as high frequency oscillatory ventilation and airway pressure release ventilation are additional options that may be appropriate in select patients. Adjunctive therapies also may be applied judiciously, such as recruitment maneuvers, inhaled pulmonary vasodilators, neuromuscular blockers, or glucocorticoids, and may improve oxygenation, but do not clearly reduce mortality. In select, refractory cases, the addition of V-V ECMO improves gas exchange and modestly improves survival by allowing for lung rest. In addition to VILI, patients with severe ARDS are at risk for complications including acute cor pulmonale, physical debility, and neurocognitive deficits. Even among the most severe cases, ARDS is a heterogeneous disease, and future studies are needed to identify ARDS subgroups to individualize therapies and advance care.

Keywords: Acute cor pulmonale; Acute respiratory distress syndrome; Driving pressure; Electrical impedance tomography; Esophageal manometry; Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation; Mechanical power; Positive end expiratory pressure.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / complications
  • COVID-19* / therapy
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / complications
  • Pandemics
  • Respiration, Artificial / methods
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome*
  • Ventilator-Induced Lung Injury* / etiology