Lying prone reduces need for breathing tube in covid-19 patients
But evidence for the effect on death or other outcomes is inconclusive
Patients admitted to hospital with severe breathing difficulties due to covid-19 are less likely to need a breathing tube if they lie face down in a prone position, but evidence for its effect on mortality or other outcomes is inconclusive, suggests an in-depth analysis of the latest evidence published by The BMJ today.
Since the 1970s, prone positioning has been standard care for patients with severe acute respiratory distress syndrome as it encourages a larger part of the lung to expand, so patients can take bigger breaths.
Usually, it is done for critically ill patients who are sedated and intubated (breathing through a tube attached to a mechanical ventilator). But in February 2020, reports emerged that prone positioning of awake patients with covid-19 may also be helpful and it was widely adopted.
Since then, several studies have examined its effectiveness in awake patients with covid-19, but results have been conflicting.
To try and resolve this uncertainty, researchers trawled databases for randomised trials comparing awake prone positioning to usual care for adult patients with covid-19 hypoxemic respiratory failure (a serious condition that develops when the lungs can’t get enough oxygen into the blood).
They found 17 suitable trials involving 2,931 non-intubated patients who were able to breathe without mechanical assistance and who spent an average of 2.8 hours per day lying prone.
Twelve trials were at low risk of bias, three had some concerns, and two were at high risk, but the researchers were able to allow for that in their analysis.
The main measure of interest was endotracheal intubation (a breathing tube inserted into the windpipe to allow mechanical ventilation). Other (secondary) outcomes included mortality, ventilator-free days, intensive care unit (ICU) and hospital length of stay, change in oxygenation and respiratory rate, and adverse events.
High certainty evidence from a pooled analysis of 14 trials showed that awake prone positioning reduced the risk of endotracheal intubation compared with usual care (24.2% with awake prone positioning v 29.8% with usual care). On average, awake prone positioning resulted in 55 fewer intubations per 1,000 patients.
However, high certainty evidence from a pooled analysis of 13 trials evaluating mortality did not show a significant difference in mortality between the two groups (15.6% with awake prone positioning v 17.2% with usual care), but the study may have lacked statistical power to detect a difference.
Awake prone positioning did not significantly affect other secondary outcomes either, including, ventilator-free days, ICU or hospital length of stay, based on low and moderate certainty evidence.
The researchers acknowledge several limitations, such as lack of individual patient data, differences between the targeted and achieved duration of awake prone positioning, and variation in the definition and reporting of certain outcomes across studies.
But further sensitivity analysis supported these results, suggesting a high probability of benefit for the endotracheal intubation outcome and a low probability of benefit for mortality.
As such, the researchers conclude: “Awake prone positioning compared with usual care reduces the risk of endotracheal intubation in adults with hypoxemic respiratory failure due to covid-19 but probably has little to no effect on mortality or other outcomes.”
In a linked editorial, researchers point out that the benefits of prone positioning in patients with covid-19 may be confined to those with more severe hypoxaemia and longer duration of prone positioning, so say it may be wise to focus efforts on these particular groups.
Several unanswered questions remain, including the ideal daily duration of treatment, the level of hypoxaemia that should prompt prone positioning, and how best to improve patient comfort and encourage adherence, they write.
These questions may never be answered definitively in patients with covid-19 as, fortunately, far fewer are experiencing hypoxaemic respiratory failure or critical illness, they explain.
“The pandemic should, however, renew interest and encourage further evaluation of awake prone positioning – an intervention that may benefit a wide range of patients with hypoxaemia,” they conclude.
Notes for editors
Research: Efficacy of awake prone positioning in patients with covid-19 related hypoxemic respiratory failure: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised trials doi: 10.1136/ bmj-2022-071966
Editorial: Awake prone positioning and covid-19 doi: 10.1136/ bmj.o2888
Journal: The BMJ
Funding: Canadian Institutes of Health Research and University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine Clinical Research Fund
Link to Academy of Medical Sciences press release labelling system:
Externally peer reviewed? Yes (research); No (linked editorial)
Evidence type: Systematic review and meta-analysis; Opinion