So, what is a mechanical ventilator, and when is it needed?

Learn the reasons you would want to place a patient on mechanical ventilation in this short article.
Last update19th Dec 2020

A mechanical ventilator is a life support machine that breathes for the patient. It can assume all of the work of breathing or some of the work of breathing. In other words, it can provide full or partial respiratory support.

Figure 1. A mechanical ventilator is a life support machine that breathes for the patient, providing full or partial respiratory support.Man on mechanical ventilator. Illustration.

Mechanical ventilation is used for those patients who cannot breathe adequately. Clinically, mechanical ventilation is indicated when a person cannot achieve an appropriate level of ventilation to maintain adequate gas exchange and acid-base balance, which is usually obtained from an arterial puncture or arterial blood gas (ABG).

Figure 2. Abnormal respiration is indicated on an arterial blood gas (ABG) by abnormal arterial carbon dioxide (PaCO2)or arterial oxygen (PaO2) levels.

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How does an arterial blood gas indicate abnormal respiration?

Abnormal respiration is usually manifested in an arterial blood gas in one of two ways or both.

Increased PaCO2

First, the patient may not adequately exhale and remove carbon dioxide effectively. Now, the removal or exhalation of carbon dioxide out of the body is called ventilation. A patient who is not adequately ventilating exhibits increased levels of carbon dioxide since they're not ventilating it out of the body. This patient is at risk of respiratory or ventilatory failure and requires mechanical ventilation.

Figure 3. Abnormal respiration, such as inadequate ventilation, causes less carbon dioxide (CO2) to be removed from the lungs resulting in increased arterial carbon dioxide (PaCO2) levels.

Decreased PaO2

Or perhaps the patient might be ventilating adequately, but the oxygen that's breathed into the lungs may not effectively distribute to the body. You see, the adding of oxygen into the blood is called oxygenation. A patient who is not fully oxygenating exhibits decreased levels of PaO2 on the ABG. In this case, the lungs may need the support of a mechanical ventilator, not because of poor ventilation, but because of poor oxygenation.

Figure 4. Abnormal respiration, such as inadequate oxygenation, causes less oxygen (O2) to be inhaled into the lungs (and diffused into the blood), resulting in decreased arterial oxygen (PaO2) levels.

So a mechanical ventilator can help the patient ventilate (i.e., get rid of excess carbon dioxide) or oxygenate (i.e., get adequate oxygen) or both.

What else do I need to know about mechanical ventilation?

Unfortunately, supporting a patient's breath is more complicated than it seems. For example, in terms of duration, how long should an inhalation last—half a second, one second, two seconds? Or, how much volume should the patient receive—100 milliliters,1000 milliliters? And how often should the patient receive the volume—10 times per minute, 20 times per minute? And by the way, what oxygen concentration should you give the patient—50%, 100%? And what about the mode of ventilation, or how much pressure can the lung tolerate?

Figure 5. Many variables need to be determined when placing a patient on a ventilator: duration, oxygen concentration, volume, pressure, respiratory rate, and mode.

You see, answering all of these essential questions and more are vital to successfully providing adequate mechanical ventilation. The answers to these questions and others are covered elsewhere in this guide.

That’s it for now. If you want to improve your understanding of key concepts in medicine, and improve your clinical skills, make sure to register for a free trial account, which will give you access to free videos and downloads. We’ll help you make the right decisions for yourself and your patients.

Recommended reading

  • Esteban, A, Ferguson, ND, Meade, MO, et al. 2008. Evolution of mechanical ventilation in response to clinical research. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 177: 170–177. PMID: 17962636
  • Hess, D. 2001. Ventilator modes used in weaning. Chest. 120: 474S-476S. PMID: 11742968
  • Tobin, MJ, and Lodato, RF. 1989. PEEP, auto-PEEP, and waterfalls. Chest. 96: 449–451. PMID: 2670461
  • Mechanical ventilation protocol summary. NIH-NHLBI ARDS Clinical Network.

About the author

Josh is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, Respiratory Care Practitioner and Clinical Education Manager.
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