Chapter 5: Principles of Critical Care Medicine


Initial care of critically ill pts must often be performed rapidly and before a thorough medical history has been obtained. Physiologic stabilization begins with the principles of advanced cardiovascular life support and frequently involves invasive techniques such as mechanical ventilation and renal replacement therapy to support organ systems that are failing. A variety of severity-of-illness scoring systems, such as SOFA (Sequential Organ Failure Assessment), have been developed. Although these tools are useful for ensuring similarity among groups of pts involved in clinical trials, guiding resource allocation, or monitoring quality assurance, their relevance to individual pts is less clear. These scoring systems are not typically used to guide clinical management.


Shock, which is characterized by multisystem end-organ hypoperfusion and tissue hypoxia, is a frequent problem requiring ICU admission. A variety of clinical indicators of shock exist, including reduced mean arterial pressure, tachycardia, tachypnea, cool extremities, altered mental status, oliguria, and lactic acidosis. Although hypotension is usually observed in shock, there is not a specific blood pressure threshold that is used to define it. Shock can result from decreased cardiac output, decreased systemic vascular resistance, or both. The three main categories of shock are hypovolemic, cardiogenic, and high cardiac output/low systemic vascular resistance. Clinical evaluation can be useful to assess the adequacy of cardiac output, with narrow pulse pressure, cool extremities, and delayed capillary refill suggestive of reduced cardiac output. Indicators of high cardiac output (e.g., widened pulse pressure, warm extremities, and rapid capillary refill) associated with shock suggest reduced systemic vascular resistance. Reduced cardiac output can be due to intravascular volume depletion (e.g., hemorrhage) or cardiac dysfunction. Intravascular volume depletion can be assessed through changes in right atrial pressure with spontaneous respirations or changes in pulse pressure during positive pressure mechanical ventilation. Reduced systemic vascular resistance is often caused by sepsis, but high cardiac output hypotension is also seen in pancreatitis, liver failure, burns, anaphylaxis, peripheral arteriovenous shunts, and thyrotoxicosis. Early resuscitation of septic and cardiogenic shock may improve survival; objective assessments such as echocardiography and/or invasive vascular monitoring should be used to complement clinical evaluation and minimize end-organ damage. The approach to the pt in shock is outlined in Fig. 5-1.

Approach to pt in shock. JVP, jugular venous pulse.


Critically ill pts often require mechanical ventilation. During initial resuscitation, standard principles of advanced cardiovascular life support should be followed. Mechanical ventilation should be considered for acute hypoxemic respiratory failure, which may occur with cardiogenic shock, pulmonary edema (cardiogenic or noncardiogenic), or pneumonia. Mechanical ventilation should also be considered for treatment of ventilatory failure, which can result from an increased load on the respiratory system—often manifested by lactic acidosis or decreased lung compliance. Mechanical ventilation may decrease respiratory work, improve arterial oxygenation with improved tissue O2 delivery, and reduce acidosis. Reduction in mean arterial pressure after institution of mechanical ventilation commonly occurs due to reduced venous return from positive pressure ventilation, reduced endogenous catecholamine secretion, and administration of drugs used to facilitate intubation (such as propofol and opiates). Because hypovolemia often contributes to post-intubation hypotension, IV volume administration should be considered. The major types of respiratory failure as well as treatment of the mechanically ventilated pt are discussed in Chap. 17: Respiratory Failure.


Multiorgan system failure is a syndrome defined by the simultaneous dysfunction or failure of two or more organs in pts with critical illness. Multiorgan system failure is a common consequence of systemic inflammatory conditions (e.g., sepsis, pancreatitis, and trauma). To meet the criteria for multiorgan system failure, organ failure must persist for >24 h. Prognosis worsens with increased duration of organ failure and increased number of organ systems involved.


With critical illness, close and often continuous monitoring of multiple organ systems is required. In addition to pulse oximetry, frequent arterial blood gas analysis can reveal evolving acid-base disturbances and assess the adequacy of ventilation. Intra-arterial pressure monitoring is frequently performed to follow blood pressure and to provide arterial blood gases and other blood samples. Pulmonary artery (Swan-Ganz) catheters can provide pulmonary artery pressure, cardiac output, systemic vascular resistance, and oxygen delivery measurements. However, no morbidity or mortality benefit from pulmonary artery catheter use has been demonstrated, and rare but significant complications from placement of central venous access (e.g., pneumothorax, infection) or the pulmonary artery catheter (e.g., cardiac arrhythmias, pulmonary artery rupture) can result. Thus, routine pulmonary artery catheterization in critically ill pts is not recommended. Monitoring pts on mechanical ventilation is reviewed in Chap. 17: Respiratory Failure.


Critically ill pts are prone to a number of complications, including the following:

  • Sepsis: Often nosocomial infections related to the invasive monitoring devices used in critically ill pts.
  • Anemia: Usually due to chronic inflammation as well as iatrogenic blood loss. A conservative approach to providing blood transfusions is recommended unless pts have active hemorrhage.
  • Deep-vein thrombosis: May occur despite standard prophylaxis with subcutaneous (SC) heparin or lower extremity sequential compression devices and may occur at the site of central venous catheters. Low-molecular-weight heparins (e.g., enoxaparin) are more effective for high-risk pts than unfractionated heparin. Fondaparinux is highly effective in orthopedic pts at high risk for deep-vein thrombosis.
  • GI bleeding: Stress ulcers of the gastric mucosa frequently develop in pts with bleeding diatheses or respiratory failure, necessitating prophylactic acid neutralization in such pts. Histamine receptor-2 antagonists are preferred for prophylactic treatment.
  • Acute renal failure: A frequent occurrence in ICU pts, exacerbated by nephrotoxic medications and hypoperfusion. The most common etiology is acute tubular necrosis. Low-dose dopamine, fenoldapam, or vasopressin treatment does not protect against the development of acute renal failure.
  • Inadequate nutrition and hyperglycemia: Enteral feeding, when possible, is preferred over parenteral nutrition, because the parenteral route is associated with multiple complications including hyperglycemia, cholestasis, and sepsis. The utility of tight glucose control in the ICU is controversial.
  • ICU-acquired weakness: Neuropathies and myopathies have been described—typically after at least 1 week of ICU care. These complications are especially common in sepsis.


A variety of neurologic problems can develop in critically ill pts. Most ICU pts develop delirium, which is characterized by acute changes in mental status, inattention, disorganized thinking, and an altered level of consciousness. Use of dexmedetomidine was associated with less ICU delirium than midazolam, one of the conventional sedatives. Less common but important neurologic complications include anoxic brain injury, stroke, and status epilepticus.


Withholding or withdrawing care commonly occurs in the ICU. Technological advances have allowed many pts to be maintained in the ICU with little or no chance of recovery. Increasingly, pts, families, and caregivers have acknowledged the ethical validity to withhold or withdraw care when the pt or surrogate decision-maker determines that the pt’s goals for care are no longer achievable with the clinical situation.