Raising Blood Pressure in Sepsis Patients

I never cease to be amazed at the number of treatments that were received wisdom, but which have been shown to be harmful – sometimes thoroughly harmful.

I well remember my professor of surgery extolling the virtues of completely restoring blood pressure in patients who were bleeding heavily. It turns out that this sensible sounding treatment is plain wrong. One should raise the blood pressure sufficiently to keep the patient awake and the kidneys perfused, but no more. Likewise, I was always taught that in cases of septic shock, fluid replacement should be sufficient to restore blood volume. The latter idea was critically questioned after a randomised trial of a bolus of fluid for critically ill children [1] (which we featured in the quiz in our last News Blog). Here, the fluid bolus was associated with a striking increase in the risk of death.

Now a somewhat similar trial has been carried out among critically-ill adults.[2] The study was carried out in Zambia among patients with septicaemia. Over 200 patients were randomised to receive fluids (and sometimes drugs) to restore blood volume and raise the blood pressure versus less intensive therapy. The results of this trial among adults with sepsis are striking; there was a considerable increase in death rates among those in the intervention group. The difference was considerable at 15 percentage points. Patients in the intervention group received a mean of 3.5 litres of intravenous fluid compared with only 2 litres among controls. Further, 14% received a medicine to support blood pressure in the intervention group compared to only 2% in the control group.

Not surprisingly most of the patients in the study were HIV positive, but there is little reason to think that these results cannot be generalised more widely. A picture is starting to emerge in the literature in favour of not trying to completely restore blood volume in critically-ill patients, at least in African settings. There is a single RCT in North America that produced contradictory findings.[3] It is hard to explain why treatment should produce such different findings across African and North American settings.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

Reference:

  1. Maitlan K, Kiguli S, Opoka RO, et al. Mortality after Fluid Bolus in African Children with Severe Infection. N Engl J Med. 2011; 364: 2483-95.
  2. Andrews B, Semler MW, Muchemwa L, et al. Effect of an Early Resuscitation Protocol on In-hospital Mortality Among Adults With Sepsis and Hypotension. A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2017; 318(13):1233-40.
  3. Rivers E, Nguyen  B, Havstad  S,  et al.  Early goal-directed therapy in the treatment of severe sepsis and septic shockN Engl J Med. 2001; 345(19): 1368-77.
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