The term life-support is used to describe any therapy that supports or replaces a necessary body function. Life-support therapies include any treatment or equipment that is required to keep a patient alive. Examples of life-support include medications to correct low blood pressure, mechanical ventilation, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, dialysis or the delivery of nutrition through a feeding tube or intravenous.
Life-support technology does not cure critical illness. Life-supporting therapies are used to sustain a critically ill patient while they receive treatment for an injury or medical problem that is potentially treatable. Sometimes, a patient's condition will continue to deteriorate despite receiving life-support. If we are unable to correct heart, blood pressure or breathing problems, other organs of the body may fail because of a lack of oxygen or blood flow. Some patients survive critical illness but are left with serious disabilities or may be unable to return to independent function.
The word "stable" is sometimes used to describe a lack of change in a patient's vital signs. Vital signs are used to describe heart, breathing and brain functions. Stable can mean that the patient is "no worse" or "holding their own" while on life-support. If a patient's condition remains unchanged (stable) while they continue to receive life support, the patient is still very sick. When patients begin to improve, their vital signs remain stable while the amount of life-support is reduced. It is a positive sign when a patient's vital signs remain stable after life-supporting treatments have been stopped.
There may come a point in time when we realize that a patient is too ill to survive or that the quality of the patient's recovery would not be considered acceptable to the patient. If, after carefully reviewing the patient's medical condition and progress, the family and medical team agree that further treatment is not in the patient's best interests, a plan to withhold or withdraw life-support may be made. The plan will be individualized according to the wishes of the patient and family, and patient comfort will remain the priority.
Last Reviewed: October 26, 2018