Understanding Shock VII: Negatives of Fluid Resuscitation

The last time we talked, we learned about the arguments in favor of non-blood fluid resuscitation. What are the arguments against it?


The “blow out the clots” argument

The vascular system is a pressurized circuit. Bleeding means poking an opening in this circuit, and we know that repairing this hole is our number one priority.

The body is pretty good at fixing leaks in its vasculature. But it’s not magic. It’s going to try to form a stable clot that covers and seals the hole, just like wrapping tape around a leaky pipe fitting.

What’s a good way to make this task harder? Increase the pressure inside the pipe. The faster that blood wants to rush out of the hole, the tougher it’s going to be to get a clot to stick there.

Imagine your inflatable raft has a pinhole in it, so you cover it with a piece of tape. It seals well. Then you drop a cooler of beer onto the raft, increasing the internal pressure. The tape blows off. Simple.

Many providers have therefore moved towards the practice of permissive hypotension — resuscitating only to a lower than normal blood pressure — and/or delayed resuscitation — waiting for substantial fluid replacement until bleeding has been controlled. Permissive may mean a pressure of 80, 90, or 100; it may mean giving crystalloids sparingly and only until blood becomes available; or it may mean giving nothing at all except the good stuff. Or you can take a page from the military, which says to resuscitate until a radial pulse is palpable, and the patient’s mental status is restored — then stop.


The dilution argument

There’s another reason why filling the patient with salt water might make it harder to control their bleeding.

Their body is trying to build clots at the location of injury. We want to encourage this process. In order to occur, it requires the activity of circulating platelets and clotting factors.

Mixing the patient’s blood with saline increases its volume but doesn’t increase the number of these clotting precursors. In other words, we’re diluting their blood, just like a bartender watering down your drink. There’s more volume in your cup, but there’s no more of the stuff we care about. And since the ability to form clots is closely related to the concentration of the clotting components, diluting the blood means slower clotting.

Together, these two arguments form a compelling case against the “volume for the sake of volume” theory. The patient’s ability to form clots and stop the bleeding isn’t a small thing; in a way, it’s the only thing. In fact, INR (a measure of clotting speed) has been shown to be a key predictor of whether a trauma patient will survive their injuries.


The proinflammatory argument

One of the key forces in the shock cascade is inflammation. So it seems like promoting more inflammation is the last thing we’d want.

But surprise: infusing fluids can do exactly this. It’s not entirely clear why this happens, but it’s unquestionably true; fluids encourage the inappropriate immune response and increase inflammation and tissue dysfunction. Suffice to say that this is bad.

Back in Vietnam, when aggressive fluid resuscitation really became trendy, doctors were perplexed to find many of their volume-resuscitated patients with a severe condition called “Da Nang lung” (nowadays Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome) — wet, failing, edematous lungs with no cardiac cause. The combination of increased fluid volume plus increased inflammation means failing lungs. Or check your nearest ICU to see some abdominal compartment syndrome, where fluid fills the abdomen until the organs fail. What were you were saying about fluids being harmless?


The acidosis argument

The pH of our bodies is a hair over 7. Pick up the nearest bag of normal saline and read the label. What’s its pH?

Is it 7? No? More like between 5.0 and 6.0? Interesting. Remember that pH is a logarithmic scale, so we’re talking a difference of 10–100 here. So that nice “normal” fluid can promote significant acidosis.

Is this bad? Only if you like clotting. Acidosis is detrimental to coagulation (among other things), for reasons we’ll get into later. Clotting is good!


The what’s-the-point? argument

In the end, the most compelling argument against pouring what amounts to water into trauma patients is this: fundamentally it is not what they need. Their problem is not a lack of normal saline. “When I find a patient who’s bleeding crystalloid,” some providers are fond of saying, “I’ll give them crystalloid. But usually, the puddle on the ground is blood.”

Now, in some patients, crystalloid may indeed be what’s missing; we’ll touch upon situations like sepsis and dehydration later. But if they’re bleeding, it seems like — at best — playing with any fluid except those that can restore oxygen-carrying capacity or promote clotting is a waste of time that could be spent patching the hole and rushing toward surgery. And at worst, it may be exacerbating the problem.

For a long time, paramedics were taught to fill the hypotensive patient with fluid until their blood pressure was normal. The jury is still out on the best practices for fluid resuscitation, but there is fairly widespread agreement now that this is a bad idea. Many progressive systems have gone the route of giving no crystalloid whatsoever for hemorrhagic shock, or at least giving it very sparingly. Seeing the numbers 120/80 on the monitor seems like a good thing, but shock is not a blood pressure, raising the blood pressure is not necessarily beneficial, and we’re supposed to be making the patient feel better, not ourselves.

So, stop the bleeding, and restore the stuff that matters. Since we rarely give blood in the field, the first one is the main business of EMS. And oddly enough, it’s very much a BLS skill.


  1. Increasing the blood pressure interferes with bleeding control.
  2. Diluting the blood discourages clotting while doing nothing for oxygen transport.
  3. Aggressive fluid resuscitation promotes inflammation, edema, and organ dysfunction.
  4. Current best practices are unclear, but likely involve a minor role for crystalloid resuscitation, in favor of bleeding control, blood products, and early surgical intervention.

Next time: mastering the field treatment of hemorrhagic shock.


Go to Part VIII or back to Part VI