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ERcast Lite

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Nov 29, 2014

The way we learn to manage pulseless electrical activity (PEA) from the Advanced Cardiac Life Support course is a mockery wrapped up in a sham. The mnemonic is cumbersome and the treatment (such as CPR for all, empiric epinephrine) is not always appropriate for a patient with normal electrical activity and a pulse. Fear not, because there is a way out of this madness. Joe Bellezzo from the ED ECMO project joins the show to talk about his thoughts on PEA and what I think is a revolutionary approach to evaluating and treating PEA. Instead of lumping all patients with electrical activity and no palpable pulse in to one group, the authors make use of ultrasound and common sense.

PEA made easy

Step one. Look at the QRS. Is it wide or narrow?

Narrow QRS is often from some sort of right side of the heart inflow or outflow problem. The electricity is working just fine. There’s either not enough blood coming in or not enough blood going out. What are some things that can cause that? Cardiac tamponade, tension pneumothorax, mechanical hyperinflation and pulmonary embolism, severe hypovolemia.

Wide QRS. What are some things that cause PEA and impaired conduction? Hyperkalemia, sodium channel blocker toxicity such as you would see in an OD, ischemia, massive pulmonary embolism.

Myocardial infarction can cause PEA in both the narrow and wide complex groups and these patients usually do poorly. In the setting of MI, think myocardial rupture.

Step two. Look at the heart with ultrasound

Narrow QRS. If you see a collapsing RV and an effusion, that's tamponade. Collapsed RV could also be from a pneumothorax or hyperinflation. A dilated right ventricle may indicate pulmonary embolism.

Wide QRS. Ultrasound will usually show a hypo kinetic heart or it may not be beating at all.

Step three. Empiric Treatment

Narrow QRS. This is often a flow problem so unleash the wide open fluids. Then focus on specific treatment if you have identified a cause by ultrasound. Cardiac tamponade- pericardiocentesis, Tension pneumothroax-decompress the chest, massive pulmonary embolism- thrombolytics, hyperinflation- adjust the vent settings

Wide QRS. There's a fair chance that your patient has some sort of metabolic problem (hyperkamemia or sodium channel OD) so push an amp of sodium bicarbonate and an amp of calcium.


Littmann, Laszlo, Devin J. Bustin, and Michael W. Haley. "A simplified and structured teaching tool for the evaluation and management of pulseless electrical activity." Medical Principles and Practice 23.1 (2013): 1-6.