How Long Can A Person Be On An ECMO Machine (And Why)?

Exact Answer: Up to several months

Life support measures are quite variegated. ECMO is one such life support mechanism. The term ECMO is a short-hand for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation. Patients who are severely ill may need to be on the machine to help oxygenate their blood. The patient’s blood is essentially oxygenated outside his body and pumped back into it through the ECMO machine.

In the event of serious injuries or diseases that adversely affect the health of a person’s heart or lungs, a physician may prescribe the usage of an ECMO machine. This machine acts as external support for managing lung damage or for recuperating from severe heart conditions.

How Long Can A Person Be On An ECMO Machine

How Long Can A Person Be On An ECMO Machine

The yardstick for measuring the maximum period of time a person can remain on an ECMO machine is determined by a set of variegated factors. The physician in charge of the critical patient’s care will highlight his decision on the basis of his detailed medical evaluation.

An ECMO machine does not treat the condition of the affected individual. It simply works to help keep the patient alive, while the medical team dedicated to the patient’s care works to devise a plausible solution to the underlying condition.

In some cases, the conditions can be treated easily and the patient need not be on the ECMO machine for a prolonged duration of time. Minor injuries that result in respiratory problems or heart issues may fall under this category. In such cases, the patient can be weaned off the machine within a few hours.

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However, patients can remain hooked on ECMO machines for up to several days and weeks. In the event of suffering from a severe pneumococcal disease or heart failure, patients may need to remain on the ECMO machine for such long durations.

Similarly, there have also been cases reported where the critically ill patient has remained hooked on the machine for up to a year. The medical thumb rule for using the ECMO machine remains the need to find a permanent solution as soon as possible. Doctors assert that it is always in the best interest of the patient to be weaned off the machine as early as feasible.

In Summary:

Conditions Being TreatedTime on the ECMO Machine
Minor Injury-Related Respiratory IssuesA few hours to days
Pneumococcal Illness or Heart FailureSeveral days or weeks
Lung TransplantSeveral months

Why Does A Person Need To Be On An ECMO Machine For So Long?

ECMO machines help the patient recuperate from the illness or conditions they are trying to battle. These machines have been termed as the paradigmatic game-changers in the medical community because of their ability to drastically change certain given patient outcomes.

A patient who has suffered a minor injury may need to be on the ECMO machine for some time as his body needs time to rest and heal. The traumatic experience of the accident may send the body into a shock stage. This can effectively hamper the involuntary responses of the body which includes the processing of the respiratory cues. In such a scenario, an ECMO machine is a lifesaver.

Similarly, a patient diagnosed with a severe heart-lung disorder or ailment needs to be on the ECMO machine for a longer duration of time. This follows the same rationale. The lungs of the individual are unable to oxygenate the blood even when supplied with extra oxygen. This necessitates the usage of an ECMO machine.

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Sometimes, the patient’s heart may be unable to sufficiently pump blood to his body. Until the infection blocking the proper usage of the lungs and heart is cleared, the patient has to remain on the ECMO machine.

Lastly, in the case of a lung transplant, doctors put patients on the ECMO machine while they are waiting for a suitable match. This helps improve the life quality of the individual as well as allows them to remain alive while waiting for a transplant. However, finding a suitable donor may take up to a year or more.


ECMO machines have been hailed as messianic lifesavers by several physicians in the medical field. The expansive testaments of patients and their families who have benefitted from this miraculous machine remain edged in the various medical journals across the world.  

Patients can remain hooked to an ECMO machine for quite some time. The physician supervising the primary care of the patient decides on the right time to wean him off the machine. This essentially happens when the doctor feels that the patient can breathe on his own and his blood is being sufficiently oxygenated. This may take up to several months for some severely ill patients.



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