What is positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) therapy and how is it used with mechanical ventilation?

Updated: Sep 15, 2020
  • Author: Christopher D Jackson, MD; Chief Editor: Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP  more...
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PEEP is a mode of therapy used in conjunction with mechanical ventilation. At the end of mechanical or spontaneous exhalation, PEEP maintains the patient's airway pressure above the atmospheric level by exerting pressure that opposes passive emptying of the lung. This pressure is typically achieved by maintaining a positive pressure flow at the end of exhalation. This pressure is measured in centimeters of water.

PEEP therapy can be effective when used in patients with a diffuse lung disease that results in an acute decrease in functional residual capacity (FRC), which is the volume of gas that remains in the lung at the end of a normal expiration. FRC is determined by primarily the elastic characteristics of the lung and chest wall. In many pulmonary diseases, FRC is reduced because of the collapse of the unstable alveoli. This reduction in lung volume decreases the surface area available for gas exchange and results in intrapulmonary shunting (unoxygenated blood returning to the left side of the heart). If FRC is not restored, a high concentration of inspired oxygen may be required to maintain the arterial oxygen content of the blood in an acceptable range.

Applying PEEP increases alveolar pressure and alveolar volume. The increased lung volume increases the surface area by reopening and stabilizing collapsed or unstable alveoli. This splinting, or propping open, of the alveoli with positive pressure improves the ventilation-perfusion match, reducing the shunt effect.

After a true shunt is modified to a ventilation-perfusion mismatch with PEEP, lowered concentrations of oxygen can be used to maintain an adequate PaO2. PEEP therapy may also be effective in improving lung compliance. When FRC and lung compliance are decreased, additional energy and volume are required to inflate the lung. By applying PEEP, the lung volume at the end of exhalation is increased. The already partially inflated lung requires less volume and energy than before for full inflation.

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