placentae abruptio

Disseminated intravascular coagulation

Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), also known as consumptive coagulopathy, is a pathological activation of coagulation (blood clotting) mechanisms that happens in response to a variety of diseases. As its name suggests, it leads to the formation of small blood clots inside the blood vessels throughout the body. As the small clots consume all the available coagulation proteins and platelets, normal coagulation is disrupted and abnormal bleeding occurs from the skin (e.g. from sites where blood samples were taken), the digestive tract, the respiratory tract and surgical wounds. The small clots also disrupt normal blood flow to organs (such as the kidneys), which may malfunction as a result.

DIC can occur acutely but also on a slower, chronic basis, depending on the underlying problem. It is common in the critically ill, and may participate in the development of multiple organ failure, which may lead to death.


About half of DIC cases result from complications of pregnancy, and about a third result from carcinomatosis. All other causes make up the remaining sixth of cases.


Under homeostatic conditions, the body is maintained in a finely tuned balance of coagulation and fibrinolysis. The activation of the coagulation cascade yields thrombin that converts fibrinogen to fibrin; the stable fibrin clot being the final product of hemostasis. The fibrinolytic system then functions to break down fibrinogen and fibrin. Activation of the fibrinolytic system generates plasmin (in the presence of thrombin), which is responsible for the lysis of fibrin clots. The breakdown of fibrinogen and fibrin results in polypeptides called fibrin degradation products (FDPs) or fibrin split products (FSPs). In a state of homeostasis, the presence of thrombin is critical, as it is the central proteolytic enzyme of coagulation and is also necessary for the breakdown of clots, or fibrinolysis.

In DIC, the processes of coagulation and fibrinolysis lose control, and the result is widespread clotting with resultant bleeding. Regardless of the triggering event of DIC, once initiated, the pathophysiology of DIC is similar in all conditions. One critical mediator of DIC is the release of a transmembrane glycoprotein called tissue factor (TF). TF is present on the surface of many cell types (including endothelial cells, macrophages, and monocytes) and is not normally in contact with the general circulation, but is exposed to the circulation after vascular damage. For example, TF is released in response to exposure to cytokines (particularly interleukin 1), tumor necrosis factor, and endotoxin. This plays a major role in the development of DIC in septic conditions. TF is also abundant in tissues of the lungs, brain, and placenta. This helps to explain why DIC readily develops in patients with extensive trauma. Upon activation, TF binds with coagulation factors that then trigger both the intrinsic and the extrinsic pathways of coagulation.

The release of endotoxin is the mechanism by which Gram-negative sepsis provokes DIC. In acute promyelocytic leukemia, treatment causes the destruction of leukemic granulocyte precursors, resulting in the release of large amounts of proteolytic enzymes from their storage granules, causing microvascular damage. Other malignancies may enhance the expression of various oncogenes that result in the release of TF and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1), which prevents fibrinolysis.

Excess circulating thrombin results from the excess activation of the coagulation cascade. The excess thrombin cleaves fibrinogen, which ultimately leaves behind multiple fibrin clots in the circulation. These excess clots trap platelets to become larger clots, which leads to microvascular and macrovascular thrombosis. This lodging of clots in the microcirculation, in the large vessels, and in the organs is what leads to the ischemia, impaired organ perfusion, and end-organ damage that occurs with DIC.

Coagulation inhibitors are also consumed in this process. Decreased inhibitor levels will permit more clotting so that a feedback system develops in which increased clotting leads to more clotting. At the same time, thrombocytopenia occurs because of the entrapment and consumption of platelets. Clotting factors are consumed in the development of multiple clots, which contributes to the bleeding seen with DIC.

Simultaneously, excess circulating thrombin assists in the conversion of plasminogen to plasmin, resulting in fibrinolysis. The breakdown of clots results in excess amounts of FDPs, which have powerful anticoagulant properties, contributing to hemorrhage. The excess plasmin also activates the complement and kinin systems. Activation of these systems leads to many of the clinical symptoms that patients experiencing DIC exhibit, such as shock, hypotension, and increased vascular permeability. The acute form of DIC is considered an extreme expression of the intravascular coagulation process with a complete breakdown of the normal homeostatic boundaries. DIC is associated with a poor prognosis and a high mortality rate.


DIC can occur in the following conditions:

Signs and symptoms

The affected person is often acutely ill and shocked with widespread haemorrhage (common bleeding sites are mouth, nose and venepuncture sites), extensive bruising, renal failure and gangrene. The onset of DIC can be fulminant, as in endotoxic shock or amnioitic fluid embolism, or it may be insidious and chronic, as in cases of carcinomatosis or retention of dead fetus.


Diagnosis is usually suggested by following conditions:

  • Severe cases with haemorrhage: The PT and APTT are usually very prolonged and the fibrinogen level markedly reduced. High levels of fibrin degradation products, including D-dimer, are found owing to the intense fibrinolytic activity stimulated by the presence of fibrin in the circulation. There is severe thrombocytopenia. The blood film may show fragmented red blood cells (schistocytes).
  • Mild cases without bleeding: There is increased synthesis of coagulation factors and platelets. PT, APTT, and platelet counts are normal. fibrin degradation products are raised.

Definitive diagnosis depends on the result of:


The only effective treatment is the reversal of the underlying cause. Anticoagulants are given exceedingly rarely when thrombus formation is likely to lead to imminent death (such as in coronary artery thrombosis or cerebrovascular thrombosis). Platelets may be transfused if counts are less than 5,000-10,000/mm3 and massive hemorrhage is occurring, and fresh frozen plasma may be administered in an attempt to replenish coagulation factors and anti-thrombotic factors, although these are only temporizing measures and may result in the increased development of thrombosis.

DIC results in lower fibrinogen levels (as it has all been converted to fibrin), and this can be tested for in the hospital lab. A more specific test is for "fibrin split products" (FSPs) or "fibrin degradation products" (FDPs) which are produced when fibrin undergoes degradation when blood clots are dissolved by fibrinolysis.

In some situations, infusion with antithrombin may be necessary. A new development is drotrecogin alfa (Xigris), a recombinant activated protein C product. Activated Protein C (APC) deactivates clotting factors V and VIII, and the presumed mechanism of action of drotrecogin is the cessation of the intravascular coagulation. Due to its high cost and its severe adverse effects, it is only used strictly on indication in intensive care patients with severe sepsis. The large, multicenter ENHANCE trial provided more evidence that there may be a favorable benefit/risk ratio to administering activated protein C in adults, but was unable to make definitive conclusions about efficacy due to the lack of a placebo control, and particularly in children, there is a high risk of hemorrhage (27.4% in patients aged 0-18 years)


Prognosis varies depending on the underlying disorder. The prognosis for those with DIC, regardless of cause, is often grim, leading the initials to be known colloquially as "death is coming".

See also


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