Jayalalithaa put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation: What is ECMO? Who needs it, how does it work?


Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who is undergoing treatment at Apollo Hospital in Chennai following a cardiac arrest on Sunday evening, has been put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) to support her heart-lung activity.

The 68-year-old leader was in a critical condition following the cardiac arrest and is being treated by a team of specialists at the hospital where she has been admitted since late September.

Here’s what you need to know about extracorporeal membrane oxygenation:

What is ECMO?

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), also known as extracorporeal life support (ECLS), is a treatment used in patients with life-threatening heart and/or lung problems.

Why is ECMO used?

The purpose of ECMO is to provide enough oxygen to the patients while allowing time for the lungs and heart to rest or heal.

Who needs ECMO?

Generally, it is only used in the later treatment of a person with heart or lung failure as it is solely a life-sustaining intervention. Doctors use ECMO on patients when they believe that the condition is reversible.

This treatment has mostly been used on children as it can give the tiny hearts and lungs of newborns more time to develop, but it is seeing more use in adults with cardiac and respiratory failure.

Conditions that may require ECMO include:

Congenital diaphragmatic hernia or CDH (a hole in the diaphragm)

Cardiac arrest

Respiratory distress syndrome (difficulty breathing)

Birth defects of the heart

Pulmonary hypertension

Respiratory failure



Severe infections

ECMO may also be used during the recovery period after heart surgery.

How does it work?

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation treatment aids in warming the blood and then returns it to the artery. It works by removing blood from the person’s body and artificially removing the carbon dioxide and oxygenating red blood cells. ECMO can help support patients for days to weeks while medical doctors treat their underlying illness.

Complications or risks of ECMO include bleeding, infection, blood clot formation and transfusion problems, etc.

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