How To Evaluate Life Support Treatments and What They'll Do To Your Body

When you create a living will, you specify the types of life support treatments and other medical treatments that you would like to receive at the end of life or would not like to receive at the end of life. In order to complete a living will, you should have a sense of what types of life support treatments are commonly available, and what the benefits and drawbacks are of each type of treatment. This can help you make informed decisions about which treatments would like to receive and which treatments you don't want.

How to evaluate life support treatments

All life-support treatments have benefits and disadvantages. For example, while a certain treatment may improve a particular function, it may also cause the patient discomfort. When considering life-support treatments, you should talk with your doctor about the nature of these treatments, as well as any specific treatments that your particular health situation may require.

For each treatment, it may be helpful to consider the following questions:

  • What purpose does this treatment serve?
  • What are the side effects of this treatment?
  • Does this treatment usually improve the patient's overall health, or does it simply extend the patient's life?

You may also want to talk with your doctor about the life support treatments that may be available to you. Your doctor can help you figure out the impact that certain treatments may have, and can work with you to complete your living will.

Types of life support treatments

Life-support treatments may include:

  • Medical devices to aid breathing. A ventilator (also known as a respirator or breathing machine) provides air to your lungs through a tube if you are not able to breath on your own. This tube can be inserted in the mouth, nose, or an opening made in the throat. A ventilator can be uncomfortable, and can impair the ability to speak.
  • Medical devices to provide food and water. Also known as "tube feeding," this provides nutrition and fluids through a tube inserted in the nose, stomach, or intestines.
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). In case your heartbeat or breathing has stopped, CPR may be administered to re-start the heart or breathing. CPR techniques range from blowing air into the mouth and pushing on the chest, to electric shocks delivered to the heart, to breathing tubes inserted into the windpipe (intubation).
  • Blood transfusions. If you have lost a significant amount of blood, the blood may be replenished with an intravenous supply of blood from a donor.
  • Dialysis. If you have experienced kidney failure, measures may be taken to mechanically filter your blood (as the kidneys would). Dialysis usually entails removing blood from the body, filtering the blood, and returning it to the body.
  • Antibiotics. If you have developed a bacterial infection, antibiotics may be used to kill the infection.

To learn about how a living will works, see our article Living Will.

To learn about the role of a living will in an advance directive, see our article Advance Health Care Directive.

To find your state's advance directive form, use our resource State-by-State Advance Directive Forms.