UMEM Educational Pearls - Critical Care

Positioning for Ventilated, Critically Ill Obese Patients

  • Up to one-quarter of patients in the ICU are obese, as defined by a BMI > 35 kg/m2
  • Obesity can significantly alter pulmonary physiology causing
    • reduced lung volumes
    • decreased compliance
    • abnormal ventilation to perfusion relationships
    • respiratory muscle inefficiency
  • For intubated obese patients, body position can affect ventilatory management
  • In the supine position, obese patients can have collapse of lung segments along with increased impedance of the diaphragm
  • Elevating the head of the bed to 30-45 degrees in intubated obese patients has been shown to improve tidal volumes and lower respiratory rates.

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Category: Critical Care

Title: Ocular sonography and elevated intracranial pressure

Keywords: ultrasound, ocular, sonography, intracranial pressure, optic nerve sheath, ICP (PubMed Search)

Posted: 11/9/2010 by Haney Mallemat, MD
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Ocular sonography is a fast, simple, and non-invasive tool to detect elevated intracranial pressure (ICP) by measuring the optic nerve sheath diameter (ONSD). Several studies have shown a positive correlation between increased ONSD (>5.7mm) and elevated ICP (>20mmHg).  Although ultrasound may not replace CT or MRI to diagnose the cause of the increased ICP, its use as a triage tool can expedite these tests.


The technique:

  1. Use linear probe on closed eyelid.
  2. Identify the optic nerve sheath.
  3. Measure the optic nerve sheath, 3mm behind globe.
  4. Rotate probe 90 degrees and measure again.
  5. Average both diameters.

Please see the references below for more information and, as with any new technique please consult local experts prior to making clinical decisions

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Ventilation Pearls in the Post-Cardiac Arrest Patient

  • Some ventilation pearls from the recently released 2010 AHA guidelines include:
    • Set the tidal volume to 6-8 ml/kg ideal body weight
    • Titrate minute ventilation to achieve a PaCO2 between 40-45 mm Hg or PETCO2 between 35-40 mm Hg
    • Reduce the FiO2 to maintain SpO2 > 94%

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Category: Critical Care

Title: Long-term complications of ICU Delirium

Keywords: delirium, dementia, ICU, (PubMed Search)

Posted: 10/25/2010 by Haney Mallemat, MD (Updated: 7/11/2020)
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Increasing literature demonstrates ICU delirium is bad. Delirium in mechanically ventilated patients is an independent predictor for long-term cognitive defects (e.g., managing money, following detailed instructions, reading maps, and developing dementia). The cited study found 80% of patients with ICU delirium had cognitive dysfunction at three months, and 70% had residual dysfunction at one year (33% had severe dysfunction).

You must be aggressive to prevent delirium:

-         Implement daily assessment tools (e.g., CAM-ICU)

-         Daily awakening and spontaneous breathing trials

-         Early patient mobilization

-         Aggressive pharmacological treatment of delirium

-         For more information:

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Ketamine for RSI in Hemodynamically Unstable ED Patients

  • Recall that ketamine acts as a sympathomimetic resulting in increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and ultimately cardiac output.
  • Because of its rapid transport across the blood-brain barrier, its sympathomimetic effects, and lack of significant adverse effects, ketamine is recommended by many organizations as a first line agent for RSI in unstable patients.
  • Important contraindications to ketamine include an acute coronary syndrome, aortic dissection, and acute heart failure.
  • Take Home Point: Consider using ketamine the next time you need to intubate a hypotensive, critically ill ED patient.

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Category: Critical Care

Title: Heliox in severe asthma

Keywords: asthma, heliox, airway (PubMed Search)

Posted: 10/12/2010 by Haney Mallemat, MD (Updated: 7/11/2020)
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Heliox is a mixture of oxygen and helium resulting in a gas less dense than air. In asthma, airway resistance causes turbulent airflow which increases the work of breathing. Heliox reduces airway resistance by increasing laminar airflow. 



Better lung mechanics

Improved nebulizer delivery

Few known side-effects/complications




Contraindicated in hypoxemic patients.

Paucity of large prospective randomized trials.

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Category: Critical Care

Title: Endotracheal medication administration

Keywords: endotracheal intubation, medication, acls, resuscitation (PubMed Search)

Posted: 10/7/2010 by Ellen Lemkin, MD, PharmD
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EMS in Maryland has REMOVED endotracheal medication administration from its ADULT protocols

This is due to:

  • Unclear efficacy and need for a much higher dosage
  • Ability to administer drugs via IO route
  • Decrease reliance on intubation
    • chest compressions only CPR
    • BiPAP use
  • Note this does not pertain to PEDIATRICS, where it is still included in its protocols

Respiratory Distress in the Ventilated ED Patient

  • In the ventilated patient with respiratory distress, evaluation of peak and plateau pressures can help to identify the cause.
  • Isolated increases in peak pressure suggest increased resistance to airflow and should prompt consideration of the following:
    • kinked or twisted ET tube
    • patient biting ET tube
    • obstructed ET tube
    • bronchospasm
    • lower airway obstruction
  • Increases in plateau pressure suggest decreased pulmonary compliance and should prompt consideration of the following:
    • unilateral intubation
    • pneumothorax
    • pulmonary edema
    • worsening pneumonia
    • abdominal HTN/compartment syndrome

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Category: Critical Care

Title: Continuing HAART for critically-ill HIV/AIDS patients?

Keywords: HAART HIV AIDS Critical illness (PubMed Search)

Posted: 9/27/2010 by Haney Mallemat, MD (Emailed: 9/28/2010) (Updated: 9/28/2010)
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While you should always involve ID consultants when managing critically-ill HIV/AIDS patients on HAART, consider this; sub-therapeutic levels of anti-retrovirals may promote HIV resistance, potentially invalidating a class of drug for future use. Therefore, it may be advantageous to discontinue the drug(s) during critical-illness to avoid resistance. 


Two examples leading to sub-therapeutic HAART levels in critical-illness:

  1. Reduced absorption of PO medications from bowel wall edema and/or decreased splanchnic perfusion.
  2. Interactions with HAART medications and the multitude of other drugs administered in the ICU.

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Life-threatening Bleeding in Hemophilia A Patients

  • Although an infrequent occurrence, patients with Hemophilia A can present with life-threatening hemorrhage (e.g. ICH).
  • Recall that normal clotting factor levels range from 50-150 IU/dL - reported by the lab as 50-150%.
  • Life-threatening bleeding requires Factor VIII levels between 80-100%.  In general, each unit of FVIII/kg raises plasma levels by 2%.
  • Recombinant Factor VIII products are preferred over plasma derived concentrates or blood products and are dosed as:
    • FVIII - 50 IU/kg loading dose followed by infusion of 3 IU/kg/hr
  • In the event you don't have access to recombinant or plasma derived FVIII concentrates, cryoprecipitate (contains FVIII) can be used.

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Category: Critical Care

Title: Necrotizing Soft Tissue Infections (NSTI)

Keywords: Necrotizing Soft Tissue Infections, sepsis, critical care, surgery (PubMed Search)

Posted: 9/13/2010 by Haney Mallemat, MD (Emailed: 9/14/2010) (Updated: 9/14/2010)
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(Sorry for the previously mislabeled pearl...)

Necrotizing soft tissue infections (NSTI) are on the rise and, despite improved surgical and critical care, over the years there has only been a mild reduction in mortality. Survival is associated with early diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, NSTI are not always obvious because deeper tissues made be involved first. Despite a validated scoring system and better radiology, our clinical suspicion still rules and relies on a meticulous history and physical exam. 

Here are some subtle signs of NSTI:


Pain out of proportion to exam

Edema beyond region of erythema

Skin anesthesia

Skin erythema and/or hyperthermia


Skin bronzing


If NSTI is suspected, be vigilant! Start broad-spectrum antibiotics, begin appropriate resuscitation and involve your surgeons early.

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Pulmonary Contusion and Ventilator Management

  • Pulmonary contusion is the most common injury in blunt thoracic trauma.
  • Patients with pulmonary contusion often present with hypoxia, hypercarbia and increased work of breathing.
  • Importantly, patients with pulmonary contusion have a low cardiopulmonary reserve.  Maintain a low threshold for initiating mechanical ventilation is these patients.
  • When starting mechanical ventilation, think about the following:
    • Patients are at high risk for developing ARDS
    • Most centers use a low tidal volume ventilatory strategy
    • Higher levels of PEEP may be necessary to recruit collapsed alveoli
    • High frequency oscillatory ventilation (HFOV) and airway pressure release ventilation (APRV) are modes of ventilation that are gaining in popularity for ventilating patients with pulmonary contusions.

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Category: Critical Care

Title: Cerebral Salt Wasting Syndrome vs. Syndrome of Inappropriate ADH Secretion.

Keywords: SIADH, CSW, syndrome of inappropriate adh, cerebral salt wasting, hyponatremia, neurosurgery (PubMed Search)

Posted: 8/30/2010 by Haney Mallemat, MD (Emailed: 8/31/2010) (Updated: 7/11/2020)
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Hyponatremia plagues many neurosurgical patients due to the syndrome of inappropriate secretion of ADH (SIADH) or the cerebral salt wasting syndrome (CSW). Both diseases may appear similar (hyponatremia, increased urine osmolarity, increased urine sodium, normal adrenal, renal and thyroid function), but there is one BIG difference. Patients with SIADH are euvolemic or hypervolemic (excess ADH causes fluid retention) whereas patients with CSW are fluid depleted (impaired renal handling of sodium and water). To differentiate, look for signs of hypovolemia: orthostatics, dry mucus membranes, hemoconcentration, pre-renal azotemia, and/or hemodynamics (IVC collapse anyone?).

Bottom line: Distinguish SIADH from CSW because the treatments are exact opposites:

SIADH: Fluid restrict

CSW: Give water and salt (i.e., 0.9% saline)

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Category: Critical Care

Title: Hemostatic Therapy for ICH

Posted: 8/24/2010 by Mike Winters, MD (Updated: 7/11/2020)
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Hemostatic Therapy for ICH - Updated Guidelines

  • The AHA/ASA just published updated guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of acute spontaneous intracerebral hemorrhage (ICH).
  • Regarding hemostatic therapy, new/revised recommendations from the 2007 AHA/ASA guidelines include:
    • Patients with severe thrombocytopenia or factor deficiency should receive platelets or factor replacement
    • Patients with ICH due to oral anticoagulants (warfarin) should receive intravenous vitamin-K and vitamin-K dependent factor replacement
      • Prothrombin complex concentrates (PCCs) are being increasingly used and are considered a reasonable alternative to FFP.  To date, studies have not shown improved outcome with PCCs.
      • Recombinant factor VIIa (rFVIIa) is not recommended as a sole agent for warfarin-related ICH
    • rFVIIa is not recommended in unselected patients
    • Usefulness of platelet transfusions for patients using antiplatelet medications is unclear and currently investigational.

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Category: Critical Care

Title: Drug-Induced Hypophosphatemia

Posted: 8/10/2010 by Mike Winters, MD (Updated: 7/11/2020)
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Drug-Induced Hypophosphatemia

  • Hypophosphatemia is seen in almost 30% of critically ill patients.
  • As discussed in a prior pearl, hypophosphatemia can result in respiratory failure along with cardiac and neurologic abnormalities.
  • Although common ED causes of hypophosphatemia include sepsis, hypothermia, and dialysis, don't forget about medications.
  • Medications that can cause significant hypophosphatemia in the critically ill (along with their mechanism) include:
    • Decreased GI intake: antacids, sucralfate
    • Transcellular shift: aspirin overdose, albuterol, catecholamines, insulin, and bicarbonate
    • Increased urinary excretion: diuretics, acetaminophen overdose, and theophylline overdose

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Hypocapnia and Brain Injury

  • Hypocapnia indirectly reduces cerebral blood volume through reductions in arterial cerebral blood flow.
  • Despite its continued and frequent use, hypocapnia can actually aggravate cerebral hypoxia through reductions in oxygen supply and increases in cerebral oxygen demand.
  • In addition to inducing further cerebral injury, hypocapnia can cause deleterious effects on the heart, lung, and GI tract.
  • To date, there is no evidence that hypocapnia improves outcome in patients with traumatic brain injury or acute stroke.
  • Induced hypocapnia in critically ill ED patients with acute brain injury should primarily be reserved for those with imminent brain herniation.

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Drug-Induced Thrombocytopenia

  • Thrombocytopenia is common in critically ill patients and is associated with increased mortality.
  • Up to 25% of critically ill patients will develop thrombocytopenia as a result of a medication, termed drug-induced thrombocytopenia (DIT)
  • Antibiotcs are a common, yet infrequently recognized, cause of DIT.
  • Antibiotics reported to cause DIT include linezolid, vancomycin, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, and the beta-lactams.
  • In fact, piperacillin/tazobactam has been associated with DIT more frequently than any other penicillin. 

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Category: Critical Care

Title: ICU Acquired Weakness

Posted: 7/19/2010 by Mike Winters, MD (Emailed: 7/20/2010) (Updated: 7/11/2020)
Click here to contact Mike Winters, MD

ICU Acquired Weakness

  • ICU acquired weakness (ICU-aw) is a general term that refers to the weakness that develops in critically ill patients during the course of their illness - especially in patients with sepsis and those receiving mechanical ventilation.
  • ICU-aw is an very common complication of critical illness that can develop within hours and has been shown to increase the duration of mechanical ventilation and ICU/hospital LOS.  Observational studies have also reported an association with mortality.
  • Risk factors associated with ICU-aw include medications (neuromuscular blocking agents, corticosteroids), hyperglycemia and immobility.
  • For the critically ill ED patient, current recommendations suggest limiting the administration of neuromuscular blocking agents and corticosteroids, when possible.

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Drug-Drug Interactions in the Critically Ill

  • Critically Ill ED patients are at risk for drug-drug interactions (DDIs) due to altered organ function, polypharmacy, and altered drug kinetics.
  • DDIs involving the cytochrome isoenzyme CYP3A4 are of particular importance.
  • CYP3A4 inhibitors, such as macrolides and azoles (fluconazole, voriconazole), can cause serious DDIs when given concomitantly with meds that are a subtrate for CYP3A4 - midazolam, cyclosporine, tacrolimus, diltiazem, amiodarone.
  • Pay particular attention to your transplant patients, as administration of an azole can result in significant cyclosporine or tacrolimus toxicity.

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Asthma, Peak Pressures, and the Ventilator

  • In previous pearls, we have highlighted ventilator settings for the asthmatic, along with the differences between peak and plateau pressure measurements.
  • When ventilating the asthmatic, pay attention to the ventilator settings placed by your respiratory therapist.
  • In general, the respiratory therapist will set the ventilator to stop delivering tidal volumes when the peak pressure exceeds 40-60 cm H2O.
  • For asthmatics, this practice can result in very low tidal volumes.
  • Thus, peak pressure limits must be set higher.
  • As you know, high peak pressures have not been shown to be injurious, provided that the plateau pressure remains < 30 cm H2O

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