Hepatic Portal Venous Gas (HPVG): a Less Ominous Sign than We Thought? A Case of HPVG associated with massive PE… #FOAMed, #FOAMcc

So a few years ago I had a patient in the ICU, post op for some abdominal surgery, and, using POCUS, I detected a hyper echoic area in the liver, in a wedge shape.  I scanned the patient and, lo and behold, there was a matching area of air-filled hepatic venous sinuses on CT scan. Well, my surgical colleague and I were very concerned and proceeded to inform the patient he would be needing exploratory surgery for what was likely ischémie bowel. He essentially – though in more polite words – told us we were idiots and that his belly felt fine and he didn’t think surgery would be needed at all.

His belly did feel fine. So were his labs. So we worried, but, given this whole thing about free will and consent, etc, couldn’t very well force him into what we felt was necessary surgery.

The next day he was fine. On POCUS, the area of air had shrunk. The next day, it was gone altogether.

We thanked him for his keen clinical acumen and for teaching us a good lesson.

However, we were a bit perplexed, because traditional teaching equated portal venous air with a severe bowel disorder, usually ischemic or inflammatory, with exceedingly high mortality. At least that is what we had been fed. We are both grads of 1999. Hmmm…

So over the next few years we saw a few of these cases, sometimes bad, sometimes not, and a review of the literature (see below)  showed an interesting evolution of the disease. Described in the 1950’s on plain films, hepatic air was a bad omen indeed, with mortality in the 75-90% range. In the CT era, the mortality started to “drop” to the 35-60% range. Now you can find quite a few reports of “surprisingly” good outcomes with conservative management. So this evolution doesn’t represent a change in severity so much as the technological capability to detect smaller and smaller amounts of air in the venous system – just increased sensitivity. And now, with POCUS – ultrasound is the most sensitive detector of air in a vascular tree – the associated mortality is likely to take another drop, not only because of our ability to detect very small amounts of air, but also because we are actually looking at the area, and also in a wider range of patient’ pathologies that those commonly associated with HPVG.


Clinical Case: HPVG and PE!

So a couple weeks ago I saw a patient in the ED who’d recently broken an ankle, had her foot put in a boot and managed conservatively and came back dyspneic and tachycardic. Here are a couple of clips:

As always, I start with the IVC:

Big & fixed.

Hepatic veins:

Biphasic flow.

Femoral veins:

So here the source of the problem is pretty clear, a large common femoral DVT.

She wasn’t very echogenic so I don’t have great clips of the heart but she had a dilated and hypocontractile RV with a McConnell’s sign (preserved apical contraction), small and hyper dynamic LV with septal flattening.

Now here is where it gets interesting, the portal vein:

You can clearly see bubbles traveling up the portal vein. Ominous, or not?

So clinically, her abdomen was normal, she had no abdominal symptomatology at all…


Pathophysiological musings:

So the severe RV obstruction resulted in significant venous congestion. Additionally, the decreased cardiac output – as manifested by a lactate of 4 and mild tachycardia/hypotension (110 HR, BP sys 90’s) was clear.

The etiology of HPVG in the literature isn’t clear – mucosal disruption, bacterial gas are all mentioned but as far as I could find, no definitive answer.

Is it possible that there is a “normal” inward leak of mucosal gas that is normally fully dissolved in the venous bloodstream, but that, in cases of low flow and/or venous congestion, the dissolution capacity (per unit time) decreases, and that gas comes out of solution?  Alternately, those who have increased intraluminal pressure (gastric distension, etc), the increased transmembrane gas driving pressure may overload an adequate blood flow…

This would explain the benign course of many patients, particularily those with gastric dilation.


Clinical course:

Based on hemodynamics, tachypnea and, to some degree, venous congestion, I decided to thrombolyse her using 1/2 dose lytics. Within a couple of hours her HR decreased to the 90’s and BP rose to 110 systolic.  Echographically, however, the IVC/RV findings remained similar, but the HPVG decreased. By the next day, HPVG was altogether gone, lactate had resolved and dyspnea was significantly better.


Take Home Message:

HPVG, although not quite as poor a prognostic sign as once thought, nonetheless warrants concern and investigation, even if the abdominal exam is entirely normal and without symptomatology, as correction of an underlying cause of “benign” HPVG (whether low-flow or bowel distension) would still need to be addressed.

In the meantime, I suspect that, reported or not, this has been noted by other POCUS enthusiasts, since we are now looking more frequently at this area, and are dealing with patients with low-flow states, congestion, bowel obstruction/ileus or more than one of these.

Hopefully some investigators will take a look at this phenomenon and delineate the pathophysiological mechanism!

Love to hear of your experience with this.




For those interested in POCUS, see here for a quick read primer on clinical applications of POCUS.


HPVG Review article 2009:



MOPOCUS: A great synopsis by Ha & Toh. #FOAMed, #FOAMcc, #FOAMus

Just came across this review and figured I should share. The authors make a great synopsis and review of POCUS in acute illness:

MOPOCUS Review by Ha &To

The only thing I would add to this is a more physiological way to assess the IVC, which I’ve blogged about here.  Sadly, I’ve heard a few people stating how they didn’t want to get into the dogma of IVC ultrasound, that it wasn’t reliable, etc.  The IVC doesn’t lie. It’s just not a recipe. The IVC findings have to be integrated into the rest of the echo graphic and clinical examination.  Trying to use it as a single value is akin to using serum Na+ as a diagnostic test for volume. It works only sometimes.

Please spread among the POCUS non-believers. We’ll convert them, slowly but surely. But the sooner, the better for the patients. Again, there’s no excuse to practice acute care without ultrasound. It’s not right. I’m not saying every probe-toting MD is better than one without, but everyone would up their game by adding POCUS, once past the learning curve!




Tom Woodcock: The Revised Starling Principle and The Glycocalyx! #FOAMed, #FOAMcc

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So today, I had the chance of having a private tutorial with Dr. Thomas Woodcock (@thomaswoodcock) about the glycocalyx and the revised Starling principles.  For anyone interested in fluid resuscitation, this is an area you have to delve into. The basic principles we all learned (which are still being taught) are basically the physiological equivalent of the stick man we all started drawing as toddlers: overly simplified and far from an accurate representation of reality.

Now my first disclaimer is that I have been a colloid supporter for many years. My physiological logic for that had been to minimize the crystalloid spillover into inflamed/septic areas, particularly the lungs and abdomen, when those are the septic sources. However, I was likely misled by my education and lack of knowledge about the endothelium.

So I stumbled upon the whole glycocalyx thing a couple years ago, and this prompted me to try more enteral fluids – the only way fluids normally ever enter the vasculature – but little else. Aware that it’s there, but unsure what to do about it.

Now a year and a half ago, Andre Denault, my closest thing to a mentor, casually dropped the line to me about albumin not working. “Don’t use it. It doesn’t act the way we think it does.”  But it was a brief chat, and I didn’t get to pick his brain about it.  Just a few weeks ago, I discuss with Jon Emile (Kenny), and he’s coming to the same conclusion.  Damn. I’m finding it a bit harder to hang on to my albumin use, which is beginning to look a bit dogmatic and religious.

Here is Jon-Emile’s take on it – a must-read.

Here is Tom Woodcock’s site and article – another must-read.

And here is my discussion (in two parts) with Tom (to skip the silence, skip forward to about 30 seconds into each – sorry my editing skills are limited!)


Bottom line?

Probably stick to isotonic crystalloids, and some hypertonics.


Love to hear some thoughts!






The NYC Tracks with Jon-Emile: Paracentesis and Volume Status. #FOAMed, #FOAMcc, #FOAMus

So I was in NYC last week and met up with my buddy Jon-Emile Kenny, (@heart_lung), intensivist-physiologist extraordinaire, and we recorded a few discussions on practical matters.

I always love to debunk myths and avoid dogmatic guesswork, and, more often than not, Jon, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the physiology literature, but more importantly a cutting edge understanding of it, can back up my vague ideas and empirically derived ideas, so that the next time someone asks me why this is so, I can have a semi-enlightened answer!

So here is the first, where we discuss the common question about the need (or not) of intravascular volume repletion during or following large volume paracentesis. Yes, there are some formulas out there as to how much albumin or crystalloid one should give, due to the worry of subsequent hypovolemia. Note how those formulas use no data about your patient’s volume status at the time of paracentesis, so as far as I’m concerned, they have no value whatsoever in an era where we can assess this. Yes, ultrasound is the base as far as I’m concerned.

Here we go:

Please share your thoughts!




Physician, know thy fluids! #FOAMed, #FOAMcc, #FOAMer

So I posted a quick poll on http://www.therounds.com, a really upcoming physician site, with the intent of getting an idea of what people use as fluids and what they know about them.


The first question was “What is your fluid of choice for resuscitation?”

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…no big surprise, 61% choose NS.  Despite the evidence of increased renal dysfunction (JAMA 2012 – I posted about this here: https://thinkingcriticalcare.com/2013/11/18/enough-with-the-normal-saline-foamed-foamcc/)

Well, at least this is chosen with good knowledge of its pharmacological properties, right?

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Hmmm… 57% peg it as physiological or basic.  Only 9% get it right. The pH is 5.6 or so.

So here we have favorite medication used by a lot of people, who use a lot of it, usually in quite ill patients, often acidotic, and who are not aware that the pH is in fact also quite acidotic.

I think it just is an important example on how we need to treat fluids as medications, and not think of them as benign interventions, and by doing so, we’d feel much more obliged to look at what we are giving in terms of composition and quantity, rather than the debonair attitude we have mostly grown up with.







Musings with Jon-Emile & Philippe – Fluid Resuscitation: Physiology and Philosophy! #FOAMed, #FOAMcc, #FOAMer

So here, Jon-Emile and I explore a topic I’ve posted about before (http://wp.me/p1avUV-bd) so I can see if a master physiologist agrees with my rationale (…not just my rationale but supported by a ton of literature many choose to overlook!).

Please visit http://www.heart-lung.org for Jon’s awesome physiology tutorials!

Love to hear listeners’ thoughts!




Enteral Fluid Resuscitation? The WHO to the rescue in the ED/ICU? (ORT part 1) #FOAMed, #FOAMcc, #FOAMer

So something has been trotting around my head for a few months, and it actually stems from a small and not-so-proud moment I experienced during a conversation with my wife, while she was still a resident.

She was telling me some of the stories of the day, and how one of her supervisors who had a mixed outpatient and ED practice, always pushed them to use PO fluids, get rid of IVs and get the patients home.  I kind of scoffed, in a sadly typical acute care physician mode, saying how you had to be a bit more aggressive and give them IV fluids to revert their dehydration a bit faster.

Then I caught myself. Hmmm. What exactly am I saying this (con brio) on the basis of. Knowledge, or belief?    I tried to find knowledge but came up woefully short. It seems I’m doing this out of habit, what I’ve seen/learned/believed in the two decades since someone handed me an MD degree. Damn.

So, I do believe in evolution. We have evolved platelets to stop bleeding, fibroblasts and osteoblasts that can fix bones, white cells that go mop up the messes, and all kinds of other good stuff.  One thing we do NOT have is small openings in vascular structures that allow unprocessed, man-made fluids directly into the bloodstream. We make these. We insert tubing into normally sterile environment and infuse a vast number of medications directly into this fragile matrix of cells and organic colloid – with the best of intentions.

In our physiology, however, the ONLY way fluid ever enters the vascular spaces is by diffusion from the outside of the endothelial cell into the lumen, molecule by molecule and ion by ion.

So let me seemingly diverge for a bit…

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Prior to the 1970’s, restricting oral intake was a “cornerstone” therapy of diarrheal illness, due to the pervasive belief that the GI tract needed time to heal and recover before resuming normal function. This was felt to be crucial. Hence, only IV therapy was used (in developed countries), and in the underdeveloped world, the death toll was appalling – especially among children.   In the 40’s, Dr. Darrow of Yale started actually studying the GI tract fluid and electrolyte issue, and advocating oral rehydration with mixed fluids. He was able to bring infant mortality radically down in his practice, but it would take over twenty years before a groups started to formally look at this in the 60’s.  Finally, in the late 70’s, the WHO pushed this out into the field, and the childhood worldwide mortality from acute diarrheal illness dropped by over 70%, from over 5 million deaths a year to a bit over 1 million – at that time.

Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) is now felt to be one of the most significant advances in modern medicine. Compared to that impact, all the critical care and cardiology trials are about as significant as a drop in a bucket. We’re not talking about composite end points and subgroup odds ratios of 0.85…

For a great review on this check out The History of Oral Rehydration Therapy by Joshua Nalibow Ruxin (google it).  A great story of science and humanity, good and bad.

So, back to 2015 ED/ICU’s.

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The question now becomes the following: why – in the presence of a functional gut – do I choose to entirely rely on non-physiological IV fluid resuscitation?

I can already hear the roars and the outrage and the cries of heresy.  And heresy is certainly what this is (Heresy is any provocative belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs – Wikipedia). But that doesn’t make it wrong.

So I would ask everyone – particularly the naysayers, to examine their knowledge and see if they actually have any at all that supports the strong conviction that IV fluids are the way to go in ALL cases (my N=1  principle precludes going for the one-size-fits-all therapeutic approach).

Now everyone agrees that, once patients are better, they should be on feeds with little maintenance fluids. I don’t think many will debate that. So that should be the basis to wonder whether, in the presence of a functional gut, a variable proportion of fluid resuscitation in acute illness should be enteral…

I’ll let everyone digest that.

Comments more than welcome.

More to come in Part 2.