Skip to main content

How I manage drainage insufficiency on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation


While extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) case volume continues to increase [1, 2], management of patients receiving ECMO remains technically challenging [2, 3]. Iatrogenic injury is a potential contributor to complications and poor outcomes [4,5,6,7]. Drainage insufficiency, wherein limited pump preload leads to reduced circuit blood flow, is ubiquitous, yet there is no consensus regarding treatment. We propose a physiology-based algorithmic approach to the management of drainage insufficiency.


Analogous to native cardiac physiology, centrifugal pumps are preload dependent such that ECMO blood flow is compromised when there is a mismatch between venous return into the drainage cannula and the drainage pressures at the cannula ports. This relationship is modeled by the Hagen–Poiseuille equation:

$$ \Delta P=8\cdotp Q\cdotp \eta \cdotp L/\pi \cdotp {r}^4 $$

where ΔP is the pressure drop across the cannula, Q is the blood flow rate, η is the blood viscosity, L is the cannula length, and r is the cannula radius.

For increasing pressure drop along the drainage cannula (ΔP), a higher venous return into the drainage cannula is required to maintain equilibrium. When venous return lags behind the pressure drop, drainage insufficiency results. Collapse of the non-rigid vasculature around the drainage ports leads to occlusion of the drainage holes and loss of blood flow. As venous blood reaccumulates, the vasculature returns to its natural state and blood flow resumes.


Drainage insufficiency occurs when there is insufficient venous return or excessively negative drainage pressure.

Insufficient venous return

Etiologies that reduce venous return into the drainage cannula include hypovolemia, vasodilation, Valsalva maneuver, and inflow obstruction. Venous return may also be dependent on the position of the cannulae and the capacitance of the vasculature containing the drainage ports. For drainage cannulae in the inferior vena cava (IVC), venous return may be compromised by intra-abdominal hypertension (IAH); in the superior vena cava or right atrium, venous return may be compromised by increases in intrathoracic or pericardial pressures.

Excessively negative drainage pressure

Excessively negative drainage pressure results from too high a pump speed relative to inflow resistance and blood volume. This may occur iatrogenically, when the pump speed is set higher than required, or by necessity, in an effort to augment blood flow in inadequately supported patients. This effect is exacerbated in the setting of concomitant insufficient venous return.


Drainage insufficiency occurring soon after ECMO initiation may be due to vasodilation, for instance, as occasionally seen with exposure of the blood to the ECMO circuit [8], or to cannulation issues, such as undersized or malpositioned cannulae or vascular injury. Later in the ECMO course, drainage insufficiency may be seen with agitation, as sedation is lightened, or with volume removal.


Drainage insufficiency is overtly present when there is variation of ECMO blood flow in association with reduced pump preload. Clinically, there may be movement of the drainage tubing, a phenomenon variably termed “chatter,” “chugging,” or “kicking.” Drainage pressure measurement may be insightful, but the lack of evidenced-based thresholds limits its utility as a standalone indicator [9]. While stable negative pressures are well tolerated, pressure swings may lead to cavitation and hemolysis [10]. In the absence of these overt indicators, drainage insufficiency can be diagnosed when increasing pump speed does not appreciably increase blood flow.


Although the differential for drainage insufficiency is broad, most references recommend fluid loading as first-line management [11, 12]. With recent data suggesting positive fluid balance is associated with prolonged ECMO duration and reduced survival [13,14,15], a more targeted approach may be prudent (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Drainage insufficiency management flowchart. DI drainage insufficiency

Management of drainage insufficiency should be aimed at restoring the mismatch between venous return and pressure at the drainage port. As a first step, the pump speed should be reduced until blood flow is stable. If the patient remains adequately supported, the lower pump speed should be maintained; otherwise, an attempt may be made to incrementally increase pump speed while monitoring for recurrence of drainage insufficiency. Of note, the pump speed should be maintained below the level where increases no longer result in higher flow rates.

Clinically evident etiologies for drainage insufficiency should be sought and addressed. For patients exhibiting agitation or coughing, treatment of the underlying cause should be considered; sedation may be required if its risks are outweighed by those of intermittent drainage insufficiency. Inspection of the ECMO circuit from the pump head to the cannula may identify tubing or cannula obstruction. Evaluation for occult bleeding, vasodilation, tension pneumothorax, cardiac tamponade, IAH, and cannula malposition should be performed as clinically appropriate.

For patients with ongoing drainage insufficiency, an assessment of fluid responsiveness should be undertaken. In volume responsive patients, Trendelenburg positioning may resolve drainage insufficiency and should be considered, as a temporizing maneuver, prior to fluid challenge. Subsequent resuscitation should be guided by clinical response, and once a volume replete state is achieved, fluid administration should cease.

If drainage insufficiency persists despite treating clinically evident etiologies and achieving a volume replete state, and assuming no occult cannula thrombosis, then the blood flow requirement is likely greater than can be achieved with the drainage cannula. In this case, placement of an additional drainage cannula should be considered.


Due to the challenges in estimating blood flow requirement prior to ECMO cannulation, we recommend selecting large caliber drainage cannulae relative to the presumed needs of the patient, typically 25 to 29 French for patients with hypoxemic respiratory failure, for instance, to provide the necessary support at low drainage pressures. Femoral drainage cannulae should be inserted sufficiently deep to access the right atrium or intrahepatic vena cava and ensure the proximal drainage holes do not lie in the iliac veins. ECMO support should be titrated to patient needs; as native respiratory or cardiac function recovers, ECMO blood flow should be reduced accordingly, limiting drainage pressures to only what is required, while maintaining a minimum blood flow rate to avoid circuit clotting.


As the use of ECMO expands, a systematic approach to the management of complex technical issues, such as drainage insufficiency, is essential to improving patient outcomes.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable


  1. ELSO. ECLS registry report: international summary. 2019. Accessed 15 Feb 2020.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Brodie D, Slutsky AS, Combes A. Extracorporeal life support for adults with respiratory failure and related indications: a review. JAMA. 2019;322(6):557–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Sidebotham D, McGeorge A, McGuinness S, Edwards M, Willcox T, Beca J. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation for treating severe cardiac and respiratory failure in adults: part 2-technical considerations. J Cardiothorac Vasc Anesth. 2010;24(1):164–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Gross-Hardt S, Hesselmann F, Arens J, Steinseifer U, Vercaemst L, Windisch W, et al. Low-flow assessment of current ECMO/ECCO2R rotary blood pumps and the potential effect on hemocompatibility. Crit Care. 2019;23(1):348.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Shekar K, Brodie D. Should patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome on venovenous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation have ventilatory support reduced to the lowest tolerable settings? No Crit Care Med. 2019;47(8):1147–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Walter JM, Kurihara C, Corbridge TC, Bharat A. Chugging in patients on veno-venous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation: an under-recognized driver of intravenous fluid administration in patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome? Heart Lung. 2018;47(4):398–400.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Wang S, Chin BJ, Gentile F, Kunselman AR, Palanzo D, Undar A. Potential danger of pre-pump clamping on negative pressure-associated gaseous microemboli generation during extracorporeal life support--an in vitro study. Artif Organs. 2016;40(1):89–94.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Mc IRB, Timpa JG, Kurundkar AR, Holt DW, Kelly DR, Hartman YE, et al. Plasma concentrations of inflammatory cytokines rise rapidly during ECMO-related SIRS due to the release of preformed stores in the intestine. Lab Investig. 2010;90(1):128–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Pohlmann JR, Toomasian JM, Hampton CE, Cook KE, Annich GM, Bartlett RH. The relationships between air exposure, negative pressure, and hemolysis. ASAIO J. 2009;55(5):469–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Faghih MM, Sharp MK. Modeling and prediction of flow-induced hemolysis: a review. Biomech Model Mechanobiol. 2019;18(4):845–81.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Sidebotham D. Troubleshooting adult ECMO. J Extra Corpor Technol. 2011;43(1):P27–32.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  12. Staudacher DL, Bode C, Wengenmayer T. Fluid therapy remains an important cornerstone in the prevention of progressive chugging in extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Heart Lung. 2018;47(4):432.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. McCanny P, Smith MW, O'Brien SG, Buscher H, Carton EG. Fluid balance and recovery of native lung function in adult patients supported by venovenous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation and continuous renal replacement therapy. ASAIO J. 2019;65(6):614–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Schmidt M, Bailey M, Kelly J, Hodgson C, Cooper DJ, Scheinkestel C, et al. Impact of fluid balance on outcome of adult patients treated with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Intensive Care Med. 2014;40(9):1256–66.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Besnier E, Boubeche S, Clavier T, Popoff B, Dureuil B, Doguet F, et al. Early positive fluid balance is associated with mortality in patients treated with veno-arterial extra corporeal membrane oxygenation for cardiogenic shock: a retrospective cohort study. Shock. 2020;53(4):426–33.

Download references


Not applicable



Author information

Authors and Affiliations



BZ and DB conceived of the presented idea. All authors contributed to the final manuscript. The authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bishoy Zakhary.

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval and consent to participate

Not applicable

Consent for publication

Not applicable

Competing interests

Leen Vercaemst is a consultant for Medtronic for conducting/coordinating EMEA region ECMO trainings. Dr. Lorusso is a consultant for Medtronic and LivaNova and is on the medical advisory board for Eurosets (all honoraria are paid at the university). Dr. Brodie receives research support from ALung Technologies and was previously on their medical advisory board. He has been on the medical advisory boards for Baxter, BREETHE, Xenios and Hemovent. No other authors report conflicts of interest.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Zakhary, B., Vercaemst, L., Mason, P. et al. How I manage drainage insufficiency on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Crit Care 24, 151 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: