Mechanical ventilation for the morbidly obese patient

Mechanical ventilation in morbid obesity has never come up in the CICM Fellowship exam, but the growing waistlines of the Western world raise the possibility that at some stage in the near future it might. Mechanical ventilation for the morbidly obese patient is challenging for a variety of reasons, which can be summarised by saying that there is simply too much patient to ventilate using conventional settings. Intensivist responses to the challenges of obesity can generally be described as "ventilate them harder". 

In summary:

  • Challenges in ventilating the morbidly obese patient:
    • Lung volumes (eg. FRC) are decreased.
    • Work of breathing, O consumption and CO2 production are increased
    • Airway resistance is increased (until you increase the FRC with PEEP)
  • High flow nasal prongs
    • A valid alternative to NIV
    • Probably better than conventional (unhumidified) oxygen
    • Mainly studied in post-operative cardiac patients
  • NIV:
    • As effective in obesity as it is in COPD, in terms of CO2 clearance
    • Higher PEEP is required 
    • Failure is associated with BMI greater than 60
  • Intubation and invasive ventilation:
    • Tidal volumes should be adjusted to ideal body weight
    • PEEP should be increased (can be up to 20)
    • Oesophageal manometry is a good guide to help adjust PEEP
    • Respiratory rate should be increased to accommodate higher metabolic needs (from 12-14 to 18-20).

In terms of peer-reviewed reading, the best (free, recent) article on the subject is the comprehensive review by De Jong et al (2017). Unfortunately, because of so little published evidence, the author was only able to make very generic recommendations, remarking for example that HFNP "could be interesting". Fortunately, theirs is an excellent bibliography for further reading about this subject.

Effects of morbid obesity on mechanical ventilation

The general effects of morbid obesity on ICU care are summarised elsewhere. In summary, there are several problems with their lung mechanics:

  • Expiratory reserve volume is decreased
  • FEV1 to FVC ratio is increased.
  • VC, TLC and FRC are decreased.
  • Work of breathing is increased
  • The weight of the chest wall contributes to a decreased respiratory compliance
  • Airway resistance is increased (until you increase the FRC with PEEP)

There are also problems which are associated with their size:

  • There will inevitably be sleep apnoea and CO2 retention, as well as severe pulmonary hypertension.
  • O consumption and CO2 production is increased (more tissue metabolising), thus ventilatory needs are greater

El Sohl et al (2001) found that on average morbidly obese patients are intubated for longer (for almost twice as long as patients of normal size), mainly because their oxygen requirements tend to be higher and they take longer to wean from the ventilator. Because of their increased abdominal and chest wall mass, morbidly obese patients "dedicate a disproportionately high percentage of total VO2 to conduct respiratory work, even during quiet breathing" (Kress et al, 1999). The amount of additional O2 / CO2 flux to be expected is something like 150% of the normal values.

High flow nasal oxygen in morbid obesity

In summary:

  • HFNP is no worse than NIV in morbidly obese patients recovering from surgery
  • HFNP is certainly better than  conventional oxygen in that group
  • HFNP may be a valid choice for pre-oxygenation before surgery 
  • Much of the data is extrapolated from cardiothoracic and pre-op bariatric surgery patients 
  • There may not be much of an effect on the development of atelectasis, probably because the level of PEEP is so low. 

In post-operative patients, there appears to be some benefit, or at least non-inferiority. Stephan et al (2017)  found that French cardiothoracic surgical patients are not harmed by being on HFNP instead of NIV after their CABGs, their comfort was greater and a statistically insignificant trend towards improved reintubation rates was observed. For the record, they used 50L/min flow, with 50% FiO2. The NIV settings were fairly gentle (8 of PEEP, 4 of bi-level pressure support), but then again these were Frenchmen and Frenchwomen of relatively average proportions, with BMIs on average around 34. Sahin et al (2018) ran a very similar study in Turkey but compared HFNP to conventional oxygen, and found that HFNP was by far the better choice. All respiratory parameters and self-reported comfort scores were better with the high flow. In contrast, Corley et al (2015) extubated their obese post-CABG patients directly on to HFNP and found that their primary outcome (development of atelectasis) was not affected.

Heinrich et al (2014) reported on the use of HFNP to pre-oxygenate patients before intubation for their bariatric surgery. The high flow was compared to standard oxygen and NIV. All groups ended up getting well-oxygenated (PaO2 over 300) but the HFNP group had the higher PaO2, 380 mmHg. This trial did not distinguish its use as a clearly superior therapy, but rather established it along the others as a valid alternative option.

Non-invasive ventilation in morbid obesity

In summary:

  • If they are getting NIV for hypercapnea associated with obesity hypoventilation syndrome, NIV is as good as it is in COPD patients.
  • A higher PEEP is suggested (perhaps 25% more than for patients of normal weight)
  • NIV is less likely to be successful the heavier you are.

There is not a lot of data on the use of NIV in the morbidly obese population with respiratory failure, but what data we do have are encouraging. For example, Carillo et al (2012) compared the use of NIV in morbidly obese hypercapneic patients to the use of NIV in hypercapneic COPD patients and found that "similar efficacy and better outcomes" could be expected.

How much PEEP do you need on NIV? Gursel et al (2011) reported on this in their cohort, and found that a higher PEEP was generally needed, but the numbers are not completely believable - the patients with BMIs less than 35 were ventilated with a PEEP of 5, whereas the morbidly obese patients had a PEEP of 7. It is not completely clear how this reflects on the obese West where PEEP in excess of 10 is routinely used, but one might interpret this as a signal that increasing your "routine" starting PEEP by about 25-30% is appropriate for a hyper-obese patient.

How do you know when they are going to need intubation? Turns out, the heavier they are, the less likely NIV is to succeed,  Duarte et al (2007) determined that NIV is unsuccessful in about a third of these patients, and weight was a major determinant-  those with BMI in excess of 60 were more likely to fail NIV, whereas successful use of NIV was associated with BMIs lower than 50. To simplify the comparison, that corresponds to a weight of 140kg in a 170cm male.

Invasive ventilation in morbid obesity

In summary:

  • A pressure control mode is thought to be ideal, because of the decelerating flow pattern
  • One should adjust their tidal volume expectations to the patient's height (i.e. the ideal body weight)
  • A higher PEEP and Paw is the expected norm.
  • Still, one should try to keep the Pplat under 35 cmH2O
  • Oesophageal manometry may help to calculate the actual transpulmonary pressure and eliminate the contribution from the chest wall
  • You need a higher PEEP than you think.
  • Post-intubation recrutment manoeuvres may be of use in maintaining lung volumes 
  • You need a higher respiratory rate than you think (18-20, instead of 12-14)

Talab et al (2009) found a PEEP of 10 works well in preventing atelectasis during bariatric surgery, for patients with a BMI of 30-50. If you are larger, your PEEP requirements appear to be greater. A recent study (Pirrone et al, 2016) found poorer lung compliance with clinician-set PEEPs (10-14 cmH2O) among patients who were all of horrendous size (BMI >50). The best PEEP settings were actually around 20 cmH2O. Post-intubation recruitment manoeuvres are also recommended to improve lung volumes after the inevitable peri-intubation atelectasis develops; Futier et al (2011) demonstrated that applying a continuous positive airway pressure of 40 cm H2O for 40 seconds helped maintain oxygenation during sleeve gastrectomy. In terms of choosing a mode of ventilation,  Aldenkortt et al (2012) found no difference between pressure control and volume control, but De Jong (2017) recommended pressure control anyway because of the theoretical benefits of the constant pressure and decelerating flow pattern.


De Jong, Audrey, Gerald Chanques, and Samir Jaber. "Mechanical ventilation in obese ICU patients: from intubation to extubation." Critical Care 21.1 (2017): 63.

El-Solh, Ali, et al. "Morbid obesity in the medical ICU." Chest120.6 (2001): 1989-1997.

Kress, John P., et al. "The impact of morbid obesity on oxygen cost of breathing (V O 2RESP) at rest." American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 160.3 (1999): 883-886.

Duarte, Alexander G., et al. "Outcomes of morbidly obese patients requiring mechanical ventilation for acute respiratory failure." Critical care medicine 35.3 (2007): 732-737.

Helling, Thomas S., et al. "Determinants of the need for intensive care and prolonged mechanical ventilation in patients undergoing bariatric surgery." Obesity surgery 14.8 (2004): 1036-1041.

Gursel, G., et al. "The influence of severe obesity on non-invasive ventilation (NIV) strategies and responses in patients with acute hypercapnic respiratory failure attacks in the ICU." Minerva anestesiologica 77.1 (2011): 17.

Stéphan, François, et al. "High-flow nasal cannula therapy versus intermittent noninvasive ventilation in obese subjects after cardiothoracic surgery." Respiratory care (2017): respcare-05473.

Fulton, Rachel, et al. "High flow nasal oxygen after bariatric surgery (OXYBAR), prophylactic post-operative high flow nasal oxygen versus conventional oxygen therapy in obese patients undergoing bariatric surgery: study protocol for a randomised controlled pilot trial." Trials 19.1 (2018): 402.

Sahin, Mazlum, Helin El, and Ibrahim Akkoç. "Comparison of Mask Oxygen Therapy and High-Flow Oxygen Therapy after Cardiopulmonary Bypass in Obese Patients." Canadian respiratory journal 2018 (2018).

Heinrich, S., et al. "Benefits of heated and humidified high flow nasal oxygen for preoxygenation in morbidly obese patients undergoing bariatric surgery: a randomized controlled study." J Obes Bariatrics 1.1 (2014): 7.

Corley, Amanda, et al. "Direct extubation onto high-flow nasal cannulae post-cardiac surgery versus standard treatment in patients with a BMI≥ 30: a randomised controlled trial." Intensive care medicine 41.5 (2015): 887-894.

Talab, Hesham F., et al. "Intraoperative ventilatory strategies for prevention of pulmonary atelectasis in obese patients undergoing laparoscopic bariatric surgery." Anesthesia & Analgesia 109.5 (2009): 1511-1516.

Futier, Emmanuel, et al. "Noninvasive Ventilation and Alveolar Recruitment Maneuver Improve Respiratory Function during and after Intubation of Morbidly Obese PatientsA Randomized Controlled Study." Anesthesiology: The Journal of the American Society of Anesthesiologists 114.6 (2011): 1354-1363.

Aldenkortt, M, et al. "Ventilation strategies in obese patients undergoing surgery: a quantitative systematic review and meta-analysis." British journal of anaesthesia 109.4 (2012): 493-502.

Carrillo, Andres, et al. "Noninvasive ventilation in acute hypercapnic respiratory failure caused by obesity hypoventilation syndrome and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine 186.12 (2012): 1279-1285.