Understanding Shock II: What the What?

. . . the rude unhinging of the machinery of life.

Samuel Gross


When we say shock, what do we mean?

First, to be clear, we’re not talking about “shock” as in “I’m shocked by all this,” or as in “shell shock,” or as in “tasers give an electric shock.” Shock is a formal medical term with a specific meaning.

Here’s the simple definition: shock is what happens when your body runs low on oxygen.

Your entire body, from the top of your horns to the bottom of your hooves, is made of cells. Your cells do various things to keep you alive. In order to do those things, they need a supply of oxygen. Just like your car runs on gasoline or your computer draws electricity, if your cells don’t have oxygen, they don’t work. Essentially, every death, no matter what started the trouble, is caused in the end by insufficient oxygen delivered to the cells.

Without oxygen, eventually your cells die, and then, so do you. However, before that happens, you enter shock.

Mind you that we’re not talking about localized tissue hypoxia. If you tie a tourniquet around your arm, your hand will run out of oxygen and have problems. If a clot blocks an artery in your brain, parts of your noodle will die. These are problems, but they aren’t shock. Shock is a generalized situation; shock happens when hypoxia is widespread and systemic.

Why would such a thing happen? Usually, it happens because there isn’t enough blood flowing to supply oxygen to your organs. Blood is the expressway for oxygen delivery; without enough blood moving at the right speed to all the nooks and crannies of your body, the oxygen won’t get there, and your cells will start to lose their little minds. Blood plays a lot of roles, but this is by far the most important. So although hypoxia is the problem, inadequate perfusion is typically the cause, and we often talk about blood supply as a shorthand for talking about oxygen delivery. There are different types of shock with different underlying causes, but this is the common element that unites them.

Everyone on board so far? If you made it past page 2 of your EMT textbook, you probably knew all of this. But there’s a twist coming, and it’s important. To illustrate it, consider this parable.

You’re shot in the belly, and you bleed out a large portion of your blood onto the ground. We bring you to the hospital, where surgeons repair every inch of damage; you are made as good as new. We replace every drop of blood you’ve lost. At this point, your tissues are repaired, your blood supply is restored, and you’re alive.

But a week later, you die in the ICU.


The key to understanding shock is this:

Shock is caused by inadequate perfusion, but shock is far more than that.

Say what?

Okay, put another way: no matter what causes the shock, shock leads to more shock.


The shock cascade

When cells become hypoxic, what happens next?

What happens is that they start to do their jobs badly, and this leads to all sorts of systemic problems. When the organs stop working properly, it leads to worsening shock and decreased perfusion, which in turn worsens the original hypoxia, which causes further dysfunction. This process feeds itself.

Dr. Jeff Guy uses this metaphor: suppose you drop a lit match in a dry forest. At this moment, what is the problem? Simple: a burning match. Correcting the problem is equally simple: extinguish it.

But then, the match catches some leaves, and the leaves ignite some dry twigs, and there’s a small fire. What’s the problem? Well, now it’s a little fire going. We can correct it, but we’ll need some blankets or water or well-placed dirt.

What about two minutes from now? The flame has grown, and now it’s a bonfire. We can put it out, but it’ll take some real effort, and it’s going to leave damage.

What about an hour from now? The entire forest is ablaze. The only hope of stopping it will be a massive effort by helicopters and tanker trucks, and even then, most of the trees are probably a lost cause. Maybe we won’t be able to beat a fire that size no matter what we do.

Question: even if we can find that original match in the forest fire, will putting it out extinguish the blaze?

Of course not. The fire has spread.

Shock is a forest fire. The initial hypoperfusion is one thing, and we should try and correct it. But if we don’t, and it starts to cause damage, then that process will start to run away on its own. It will start to cascade, and expand, and feed itself; a new monster is born. Once this has happened, guess what?

We can completely fix the initial hypoperfusion, and still lose the patient.

This happens all the time. Shock occurs, for whatever reason, and we recognize and treat it. But we got there too late. The fire spread. We extinguished the match, but we couldn’t put out the blaze before the damage was too profound to survive. The complications of shock affect nearly every organ system, disrupt nearly every physiological parameter, and undermine the very homeostatic mechanisms that exist to help “fight the fire.” Once this process gets past a certain point, there’s no beating it; the essential fabric of the body is corrupted, and its ability to repair and maintain itself is destroyed. Days or weeks later, despite our best medical care, the patient dies from general, widespread complications. “The operation was successful,” as the surgeons say, “but the patient died.”

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to fix the initial shock state. That means we should try to fix it immediately.  It means it’s a time-critical, every-second-counts priority — because it’s not the kind of thing we can handle at the last minute. If we don’t nip it in the bud, we’ll go down paths that we can’t come back from.

So, the lessons for today:

  1. Shock is characterized by inadequate oxygen delivery to the cells.
  2. This is typically caused by inadequate bloodflow to the tissues.
  3. Once initiated, shock involves numerous pathological processes that range far beyond the initial hypoxic injury. These complications can persist long after the underlying trigger is corrected.

Next time: a deeper look into some of the “unhingings” that characterize the evolution of shock.

Go to Part III or back to Part I


  1. kate cannell says:

    EMT student here. Shock scares me silly.
    Now I know why, so thank you.
    Kate Cannell
    Anyone who starts a post with Don Hertzfeldt “my anus is bleeding…yay!’ rocks.

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