Intracranial hemorrhage in adults on ECMO

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Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) use has exploded over the last decade. However, it remains invasive and associated with significant complications, including tamponade, infection, thrombosis, gas embolism and bleeding. The most dreaded complication is intracranial hemorrhage (ICH). In this article, we review the literature on the incidence, diagnosis, risk factors, pathophysiology, prognosis, prevention and management of ICH in adults on ECMO.

Main findings:

We found a high incidence of ICH in the literature with a poor prognosis. Important risk factors included pre-ECMO cardiac arrest, sepsis, influenza, renal failure, renal replacement therapy, hemolysis and thrombocytopenia. The optimal anticoagulation strategy is still uncertain. As platelet dysfunction and depletion appear to play an important role in the pathogenesis of ICH in patients on ECMO, a liberal platelet transfusion strategy may be advised. Prompt computed tomography (CT) diagnosis is of great importance as interventions to limit hematoma expansion and secondary neurological injury are most effective if instituted early. Transporting patients to the radiology department can be performed safely while on ECMO. A strategy combining screening CT on admission with a heparin-free period of extracorporeal support was demonstrated to be safe in VV-ECMO patients and resulted in a better prognosis compared to similar cohorts in the literature.


Despite major technological improvements and all the experience gained in adults, ECMO remains associated with a high incidence of ICH. There are still wide gaps in our understanding of the disease. Optimal management strategies that minimize the risk of ICH and improve prognosis need to be further studied.

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