Positive end-expiratory pressure: how to set it at the individual level
The positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP), since its introduction in the treatment of acute respiratory failure, up to the 1980s was uniquely aimed to provide a viable oxygenation. Since the first application, a large debate about the criteria for selecting the PEEP levels arose within the scientific community. Lung mechanics, oxygen transport, venous admixture thresholds were all proposed, leading to PEEP recommendations from 5 up to 25 cmH2O. Throughout this period, the main concern was the hemodynamics. This paradigm changed during the 1980s after the wide acceptance of atelectrauma as one of the leading causes of ventilator induced lung injury. Accordingly, the PEEP aim shifted from oxygenation to lung protection. In this framework, the prevention of lung opening and closing became an almost unquestioned dogma. Consequently, as PEEP keeps open the pulmonary units opened during the previous inspiratory phase, new methods were designed to identify the ‘optimal’ PEEP during the expiratory phase. The open lung approach requires that every collapsed unit potentially openable is opened and maintained open. The methods to assess the recruitment are based on imaging (computed tomography, electric impedance tomography, ultrasound) or mechanically-driven gas exchange modifications. All the latest assume that whatever change in respiratory system compliance is due to changes in lung compliance, which in turn is uniquely function of the recruitment. Comparative studies, however, showed that the only possible approach to measure the amount of collapsed tissue regaining inflation is the CT scan. In fact, all the other methods estimate as recruitment the gas entry in pulmonary units already open at lower PEEP, but increasing their compliance at higher PEEP. Since higher PEEP is usually more indicated (also for oxygenation) when the recruitability is higher, as occurs with increasing severity, a meaningful PEEP selection requires the assessment of recruitment. The Berlin definition may help in this assessment.