There is increasing evidence that individually optimized hemodynamic therapy oriented on goals to maintain and improve tissue perfusion and/or oxygenation improves patient outcome [1]. The development of tissue hypoxia is a leading cause of postoperative organ failure and mortality following major surgery [2,3]. Early recognition and correction of warning signals of persistent inadequacy of tissue perfusion is therefore of particular importance, especially in patients with a reduced physiological reserve [1,4].

The inability to meet an increase in oxygen (O2) demand with surgical trauma either by an increase in O2 delivery or an increase in O2 extraction can lead to tissue hypoxia [5,6]. Several markers of impaired tissue oxygenation have been explored to help identify patients at increased risk of complications. Postoperative organ failure has been shown to be associated with reduced central venous O2 saturation (ScvO2), which explores the balance of O2 delivery and tissue O2 consumption [7]. However, there is evidence that O2-derived variables are poorly correlated with anaerobic metabolism [8-11]. Indeed, both normal and high values (that is, ≥75%) for ScvO2 do not preclude the presence of tissue hypoxia in case of impaired O2 extraction capabilities, which may therefore limit the usefulness of ScvO2 monitoring [12,13]. In contrast, it has also been shown that strategies aimed at reducing high serum lactate levels, as a warning signal of a persistent tissue hypoxia at ICU admission, could reduce length of stay and mortality [14,15]. However, a rise in lactate level may be delayed compared with markers of tissue oxygenation adequacy, such as oxygen extraction [16], and could be not sensitive enough to reflect tissue hypoperfusion [14].

Previous relatively small studies have proposed central venous-to-arterial carbon dioxide gradient (PCO2 gap), a global index of tissue perfusion, as a useful measurement to characterize the insufficient flow state in spite of apparently normal macrocirculatory parameters [17,18]. Tissue partial pressure of carbon dioxide (PCO2) reflects metabolic alterations due to inadequate perfusion in actively metabolized tissues [19]. The PCO2 gap, which has been shown to be inversely related to cardiac output (CO) [20], is considered as a marker of the ability of the venous blood flow to remove the CO2 excess produced in tissues [21]. Thus, an impaired tissue perfusion during a reduced blood flow is the main determinant of a rise of the PCO2 gap [22]. However, despite promising findings from both experimental and clinical data, the prognostic significance of the PCO2 gap has only been examined to a small extent in the context of major surgical trauma. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the clinical relevance of high values of the PCO2 gap, and their relationships to other markers of impaired tissue perfusion and oxygenation (that is, blood lactate and ScvO2). We hypothesized that the PCO2 gap could serve as a useful tool to help identify patients at high risk of postoperative complications at ICU admission following major surgery.



This was a prospective single-center observational study of patients scheduled for major abdominal and vascular surgery and admitted to the ICU of a University Hospital over a 1-year period. The study was approved by local Research Ethics Committee of the University Hospital of Lille, France, which permitted anonymous data analysis. The requirement for written inform consent was waived due to the strict observational design of this study.

Inclusion criteria adapted from Schoemaker and colleagues [23] are summarized in Table 1 and are divided into demographic, surgical and intensive care criteria. All patients undergoing abdominal or vascular surgery were included if they had one of the following criteria: 1) one demographic criterion and one surgical criterion; 2) three or more demographic criteria; 3) three or more surgical criteria; 4) one intensive care criterion.

Table 1 Demographic, surgical and intensive care inclusion criteria

Study protocol

As part of our routine hemodynamic monitoring during major surgery, all patients were monitored with central venous (standard two-lumen catheter, Arrow, Wayne, Pennsylvania, USA; or PreSep catheter with oximetry, Edwards Lifesciences, Irvine, California, USA) and arterial (Seldicath, Plastimed, Le Plessis Bouchard, France) catheters placed before the beginning of surgery. The central venous line was positioned with the tip within the superior vena cava, and correct positioning was verified by chest radiograph. Until admission to the ICU, anesthesia and surgical procedures were performed according to the local standards. No specific hemodynamic protocol was used during surgery. All patients were admitted to the ICU immediately after surgery and were all managed according to our local standards of care.

Data collection and outcome measures

Standard postoperative monitoring included: electrocardiograph (heart rate), invasive mean arterial pressure, pulse oxymetry and urine output. In all patients, the PCO2 gap, calculated as the difference between central venous partial pressure of carbon dioxide and arterial partial pressure of carbon dioxide, ScvO2, serum lactate level, blood gas analysis, troponin I and routine laboratory tests were obtained by intermittent blood sampling immediately after admission (H0) and repeated 6 (H6) and 12 hours (H12) later. At ICU admission, data on demographics (age, sex, weight), type of surgical procedure, American Society of Anesthesiology Physical Status score, Simplified Acute Physiology Score (SAPS) II [24], presence of catecholamine and the need for mechanical ventilation were recorded in all patients. Postoperative organ failure was assessed using the Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score recorded daily until ICU discharge.

Briefly, the organ failure criteria are:

  • Circulatory failure: use of catecholamine to maintain a mean arterial pressure ≥65 mmHg after a suitable fluid loading.

  • Acute respiratory failure: need for mechanical ventilation or noninvasive ventilation.

  • Acute kidney injury: 1.5-times increase in creatinine serum level or increased creatinine >0.3 mg/dl or urine output <0.5 ml/kg per hour for 6 hours.

  • Neurological impairment: stroke with focal deficit or coma (Glasgow score ≤8) or delirium.

Postoperative complications were assessed in accordance with previously defined criteria [25,26] until hospital discharge or death as follows: postoperative sepsis (pneumonia, intraperitoneal abscess, wound infection, peritonitis and urinary tract infection), acute respiratory failure, acute renal and cardiac failures, postoperative hemorrhage, ischemic events, and postoperative mortality. Patients were followed-up until hospital discharge or death.

Statistical analysis

The study population was divided into two groups according to the occurrence of postoperative complications. Normal distribution of all variables was accessed by graphical methods and the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. All data are presented as absolute value (%), as mean ± standard deviation or as median (interquartile range) when necessary. Differences between the two groups at baseline were analyzed using the Student’s t test or Mann-Whitney U test for continuous variables, and chi-square test or Fisher’s exact test for categorical variables. A repeated-measure analysis of variance was used to compare variables over time. When the sphericity assumption has been violated as assessed by Mauchly’s test, the degrees of freedom were corrected using Greenhouse-Geisser estimates of sphericity. A Bonferroni correction was used for post hoc tests. Univariate analysis was performed to test associations with postoperative complications. A logistic regression was performed for multivariate analysis for all univariate relevant covariates that discriminate between the two groups (P value <0.05 was set as the limit for inclusion). A hierarchical entry method in two blocks was used. In the first block, variables usually known to influence prognosis were entered. In the second block, all other variables were entered. Receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves were generated to identify optimal cut-off values for outcome associations, and the area under the ROC curve, sensitivity and specificity were calculated. The optimal threshold value from the ROC curves was assessed to obtain the highest Youden index and positive likelihood ratio. A P value less than 0.05 was considered statistically significant. Statistical analysis was performed using the SPSS 17.0 software (Chicago, IL, USA).


Between May 2008 and May 2009, 115 patients who fulfilled the entry criteria were included in the study. Baseline characteristics of the study population are given in Table 1. The median American Society of Anesthesiology Physical Status score was 3.0 (2.0-3.0), mean age was 65 ± 12 years, and 75% were male. At the time of inclusion (T0), the median SAPS II score was 19.5 (15.0-28.7) and the mean ScvO2 and PCO2 gap were 77.3 ± 6.3% and 7.2 ± 3.3 mmHg, respectively. A total of 43% of patients were mechanically ventilated, and 36% received catecholamine infusion. The median duration of mechanical ventilation was 0.0 (0.0-3.0) days. The SOFA scores were 4.0 (1.0-10.0), 4.0 (1.0-8.0), and 4.0 (1.0-8.0) at postoperative days 1, 2 and 3, respectively. The median ICU and hospital length of stays were 6.0 (4.0-8.0) days and 21.0 (15.0-29.0) days, respectively. The 28-day mortality rate was 8% (septic shock, n = 4; acute mesenteric ischemia, n = 2; myocardial infarction, n = 2; massive acute blood loss, n = 1).

Association with outcome

A total of 78 (68%) patients developed postoperative complications during their ICU stay, of whom 57 (50%) patients developed postoperative sepsis and 54 (47%) patients developed organ failure (Table 2). At the time of surgery, patients with postoperative complications were more likely to undergo urgent surgery (Table 3). There were no other statistically significant differences in baseline high-risk criteria between the two patient groups. Patients with postoperative complications were more severely ill on ICU admission (SOFA score: 7.0 (3.0-12.0) versus 1.0 (1.0-2.5), P < 0.001; SAPS II score: 23.0 (16.5-31.2) versus 15.5 (12.0-24.2), P = 0.008), had longer durations of mechanical ventilation (2.0 (0.0-3.0) days versus 0.0 (0.0-0.0) days, P < 0.001) and longer durations of hospital stay (25.0 (20.0-34.0) days versus 14.0 (12.0-160), P < 0.001). On the day of ICU admission, there were statistically significant differences in lactate level (P = 0.006), but not in ScvO2 values (P = 0.17) between patients who did and did not develop postoperative complications. Univariate analysis identified nine variables on ICU admission associated with the occurrence of postoperative complications on ICU admission: lactate level (P = 0.006), troponin level (P = 0.025), bicarbonate level (P = 0.008), arterial O2 saturation (P = 0.026), urine output (P = 0.023), PCO2 gap value (P < 0.001), SAPS II (P = 0.008), SOFA score (P < 0.001) and emergency surgery (P = 0.04). Multivariate analysis showed that a high PCO2 gap (odds ratio = 1.93, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.36 to 2.75, P < 0.001) and a high SOFA score (odds ratio = 1.52 95% CI 1.14 to 2.02, P = 0.004) at H0 were independently associated with the occurrence of postoperative complications (Table 4). The same results were observed at H6 (data not shown). The area under the ROC curve for the occurrence of postoperative complications was 0.86 (95% CI 0.77 to 0.95) for the PCO2 gap. The area under the ROC curve for organ failure for SOFA score, SAPS II score, lactate level and troponin value were 0.82, 0.67, 0.67 and 0.57, respectively (Figure 1). The optimal PCO2 gap value on ICU admission was 5.8 mmHg (sensitivity 90.7%, specificity 70.0%, positive predictive value 86.6%, and negative predictive value 78.8%) for discriminating between patients who did and patients who did not develop postoperative complications. Of the 54 patients who developed organ failure, 46 had a PCO2 gap ≥6 mmHg. A high PCO2 gap (>6 mmHg) was observed in 68% of the patients upon admission to the ICU after surgery. Compared with patients with a low PCO2 gap on ICU admission, a high PCO2 gap was associated with more organ failure (P < 0.001), and an increase in duration of mechanical ventilation (P = 0.002) and length of hospital stay (P < 0.001) (Table 5). In addition, a high PCO2 gap was associated with a higher 28-day mortality rate (11.5% versus 0%, P = 0.056).

Table 2 Postoperative complications
Table 3 Baseline characteristics of patients who did and did not develop postoperative complications
Table 4 Logistic regression results: variables associated with the occurrence of postoperative complications
Figure 1
figure 1

Discriminant factors of postoperative complications. Receiver operating characteristic curve comparing the ability of central venous-to-arterial difference in carbon dioxide (PCO2 gap), Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score, Simplified Acute Physiology Score (SAPS) II score, lactate level and troponin level at baseline to discriminate between patients who did (n = 78) and did not (n = 37) develop postoperative complications. Areas under the curve are 0.86; 0.82; 0.67; 0.67 and 0.57, respectively.

Table 5 Outcome of patients with high and low values of PCO2 gap on ICU admission

Trends in PCO2 gap

Changes in the PCO2 gap and lactate values during the first 12 hours are shown in Figure 2. From H0 to H12, there was a significant difference for mean PCO2 gap (P = 0.001) and mean lactate values (P = 0.003) between patients who did or did not develop postoperative complications. Maximal difference was present immediately after inclusion just after surgery (8.7 ± 2.8 mmHg versus 5.1 ± 2.6 mmHg, P < 0.001). There was a trend towards a decreased PCO2 gap all along the first 12 hours of medical support in the ICU for patients with postoperative complications (P = 0.064). Similar trends were present for the lactate level. There was also a significant difference for mean PCO2 gap (P = 0.003) between patients who developed organ failure and those who did not (Figure 3).

Figure 2
figure 2

Trends in PCO2 gap and lactate level. (A) Trends in PCO2 gap (mmHg) and (B) trends in lactate level (mmol/l) in patients who did (n = 78; square markers) and did not (n = 37; circle markers) develop postoperative complications. PCO2 gap, central venous-to-arterial difference in carbon dioxide.

Figure 3
figure 3

Trends in PCO2 gap and organ failure. Trends in PCO2 gap (mmHg) in patients who developed organ failure (n = 54; square markers) and those who did not (n = 61; circle markers). Results are expressed as means ± 95% confidence interval. PCO2 gap, central venous-to-arterial difference in carbon dioxide.


The main finding of our study is that a PCO2 gap >6 mmHg at ICU admission following major surgery is predictive of postoperative complications in high-risk surgical patients. Patients with an enlarged PCO2 gap had more organ failure, increased durations of mechanical ventilation as well as length of hospital stay, and a trend towards higher mortality rates, although the latter did not reach statistical significance.

To the best our knowledge, this study is the first to evidence the prognostic significance of an enlarged PCO2 gap at ICU admission in high-risk surgical patients. In patients who developed postoperative complications, the increase in PCO2 gap was maximal immediately after ICU admission and gradually decreased thereafter as a result of medical support. The diagnostic performance of the PCO2 gap is quite similar to the SOFA score with the huge advantage of being measurable at patient admission. In addition, the measurement of the PCO2 gap is much more responsive than the SOFA score and easy to implement at the bedside. These results are supported by the results of a previous study by our group in which an enlarged PCO2 gap was associated with an increased rate of postoperative complications in patients who remained inadequately managed by volume loading during an individualized goal-directed therapy [17]. These results also echo those of previous studies in patients with severe sepsis or septic shock in which a large PCO2 gap was associated with higher rates of organ failure and greater mortality [18,21,27]. In all these studies, the thresholds for PCO2 gap values were around 5 to 6 mmHg, as in our study.

The increase in venous PCO2 would reflect a state of insufficient flow relative to CO2 production [28,29]. Indeed, in an in situ, vascularly isolated, innervated dog hindlimb model, Vallet and colleagues evidenced that the PCO2 gap increased during low blood flow-induced tissue hypoxia (ischemic hypoxia) while it remained unchanged during hypoxemia-induced hypoxia (hypoxic hypoxia) [22]. These results were confirmed in a mathematical analysis model [30] and in in vivo conditions in pig [31] and in sheep [9]. These results are also in agreement with those of Bakker and colleagues [21] who showed that, in patients with septic shock, the PCO2 gap was smaller in survivors than in non-survivors, despite quite similar CO, O2 delivery (DO2) and O2 consumption (VO2) values. In septic shock patients, characterized by an increased PCO2 gap and a low flow state, fluid challenge was found to lower the PCO2 gap while increasing CO [32]. In contrast, no significant changes in CO and PCO2 gap were found in patients with normal PCO2, thus confirming the relationship between an increased PCO2 gap and insufficient flow [32].

In our study, ScvO2 did not allow us to discriminate between patients with and without postoperative complications. These results seem to contradict previous studies. Indeed, recently published data clearly demonstrate that low ScvO2 during and after major abdominal surgery is associated with an increased risk of postoperative complications [7,16,33]. In addition, ScvO2 was part of early goal-directed therapy protocol algorithms that have proven their effectiveness in improving the prognosis of patients [16,34]. As the use of ScvO2 has become increasingly popular in the management of high-risk surgical patients, one part of our patients (at the convenience of the anesthetist in charge of the patient) had already been treated using ScvO2 during surgery before inclusion in the study. The hemodynamics of our patients were in part optimized, as evidenced by ScvO2 values above 70% in both groups. Another point to consider is that sepsis was the main cause of postoperative complications in our study (47%). In this situation where microcirculation failure is frequent, a normal or high ScvO2 value does not preclude tissue hypoperfusion [12,13,35]. According to the modified Fick equation applied to CO2, the PCO2 gap is linearly related to CO2 production (VCO2) and inversely related to CO [29]. In situations where the VO2/DO2 relationship is satisfied, the flow is sufficient to wash out the CO2 produced by the tissue even if there is an additional anaerobic VCO2 [22]. Conversely, when blood flow is low, the PCO2 gap may increase even if there is no increase in VCO2 [31]. Taken together, these factors may explain why, in some of our patients, the PCO2 gap was increased while ScvO2 was normal and ScvO2 failed to predict postoperative complications [36].

Similarly, lactate levels were not an independent factor associated with postoperative complications, unlike the PCO2 gap. This difference is not entirely a surprise since our surgical patients benefited from immediate hemodynamic support in the operating room and intensive care. Therefore, these patients were not necessarily in a decompensated state as evidenced by the small increase in lactate levels (<2.5 mmol/l on average) and ScvO2 > 70% including patients who present with postoperative complications. The increase in PCO2 gap seems only to suggest that there is a hemodynamic optimization margin for these patients. Moreover, the PCO2 gap and lactate levels may reflect different events since lactate clearance is slower than the dynamic and rapid change in PCO2 gap; the lactate level could reflect the hemodynamic state in the last hours of surgery. If there was a significant relationship between the rate of lactate at H0 and intraoperative variables, such as intravenous fluids, blood loss, episodes of low mean blood pressure ≤60 mmHg for more than 10 minutes, and duration of surgery (data not shown), the strength of this association is quite relative, since the correlation coefficients ranged from 0.273 to 0.359. If intraoperative events influenced the lactate levels at postoperative ICU admission, they were not the only explanation.

In this context, when early goal-directed therapy has reached its objectives including ScvO2 > 70%, the PCO2 gap could be a useful additional tool to continue processing hemodynamic optimization. In several studies using a goal-directed therapy in sepsis, it was demonstrated that either lactate clearance or PCO2 gap could be useful for identifying a persistent tissue hypoperfusion even when ScvO2 goals had been achieved [15,18]. In surgical patients, it has been shown that an individualized preload-targeted fluid loading to maintain tissue perfusion was not sufficient to prevent significant differences in outcome [37]. Interestingly, the mean PCO2 gap was larger in patients with complications with a “normalized” DO2/VO2 ratio (ScvO2 ≥ 71%) than in patients without complications, with 5 mmHg as the best threshold value. Associated with these previous studies, our results confirm that the PCO2 gap is a useful and additional tool to detect persistent tissue hypoperfusion. Moreover, the increase in lactate level, another marker of inadequate VO2/DO2 relationship, is often delayed compared to other markers such as ScvO2 [16]. In our study the elevation of the PCO2 gap was very early, starting at patient inclusion. Part of this increase was probably secondary to the intraoperative hemodynamic situation. The PCO2 gap at H0 was significantly higher in patients undergoing intraoperative catecholamine (6.88 ± 3.16 versus 3.02 ± 8.7, P = 0.006), but this effect appears to be limited to the most seriously ill patients (those receiving catecholamines) since there was no correlation between PCO2 gap at H0 and other intraoperative macrocirculatory variables (mean arterial pressure, heart rate, blood loss, fluid loading, blood transfusions, dieresis; data not shown).

Our study has several limitations. First, this was a single-center study involving patients undergoing major abdominal surgery. It is therefore uncertain whether our findings can be extrapolated to other non-abdominal surgery. Second, we are aware that the number of patients was relatively small which could limit the external validity of the study, and that complementary data are needed to confirm the result. Nevertheless, when we considered that one measurement of PCO2 ≥ 6 mmHg at inclusion was associated with the occurrence of postoperative complications, we found a post-hoc power >90%. Third, the use of central venous-to-arterial PCO2 difference as a surrogate for mixed venous PCO2 gap might be a further limitation. Nevertheless, it has been found that central venous PCO2, obtained from a simple central blood sample instead of a pulmonary arterial blood sample, is a valuable alternative to mixed PCO2 and that correlation with CO still exists in this context [38].


This is the first study concerning the usefulness of PCO2 gap in high-risk surgical patients at admission in postoperative ICU confirming previous results established during a surgical period or in septic patients. There is strong support for the use of goal-directed therapy, particularly for fluid resuscitation, with ScvO2 as the cornerstone of these algorithms. However, once these objectives are achieved, the PCO2 gap might be a useful and complementary tool to detect persistent tissue hypoperfusion that could be included as an additional step in the algorithms of early goal-directed therapy protocols. As the design of our study did not formally link the changes in PCO2 gap with tissue hypoperfusion or therapeutic change, further studies are needed to confirm these findings and be extended to other forms of surgery.

Key messages

  • High PCO2 gap values were associated with a higher rate of postoperative complications in high-risk surgical patients.

  • Threshold value is 6 mmHg.

  • In further studies, PCO2 gap could be integrated as an additional step in the algorithms of goal-directed therapy.