William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital

ICU Glossary of Terms

6201 Harry Hines Blvd.
Dallas, Texas 75390 (Directions)

Appointment New Patient Appointment or 214-645-8300

Being admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) is complex. This glossary of terms provides an overview to help you understand key words and terms you may hear regarding care, equipment, and procedures.

Arterial line (A-line)

A tube to help measure blood pressure. It may also be used to draw blood for lab tests. It is inserted into an artery, most often the wrist.

Bladder catheter (Foley)

A tube used to collect urine into a bag. The amount collected helps tell us how well the kidneys are working. Sometimes patients feel the urge to urinate even though the catheter is in place. This is normal.

Central venous line

A thin, flexible tube (catheter) placed in a large vein in the neck, leg/groin, or arm. (In the arm, it is called a PICC line.) The tube is used to provide certain medications and monitor the patient.

Chest tube

A hollow, flexible tube placed into the chest (between the ribs and lung) to act as a drain for blood, fluid, or air from around a patient’s lung, heart, or esophagus. This can allow the lungs to fully expand back to normal.

Continuous renal replacement therapy (CRRT)

Short-term treatment for inpatients with kidney dysfunction accompanied by low blood pressure, using a machine that allows for continuous dialysis that removes extra fluid and toxins, as well as helps restore balance of certain natural electrolytes in the blood.


A type of confusion. Patients may have difficulty focusing, following commands, or remembering things. ICU delirium is thought to be related to a combination of factors such as sleep deprivation, pain, stress, immobility, and exposure to certain medications.


A medical treatment used to remove excess waste and fluid from the blood of patients whose kidneys are not working properly. Dialysis does not fix the kidneys. For some patients, the need for dialysis is temporary. Some patients continue to need dialysis after the ICU stay.

Dialysis line

A thin, flexible tube (catheter) placed in a large vein in either the neck or groin to provide dialysis.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

Used to monitor the heart’s electrical activity.

Endotracheal tube (ETT or ET tube)

A tube connected to a mechanical ventilator to assist with breathing and delivering oxygen. It is inserted through the mouth or nose and then into the windpipe, the main airway of the lungs (trachea). Inserting the tube is part of intubation. (To intubate is to insert the ET tube. To extubate is to remove the ET tube.)

Feeding tube (Dobhoff tube)

A small tube placed in the nose or mouth. It allows for fluids, medications, and nutrition to be given to patients unable to take them by mouth. A nasogastric tube goes through the nose or mouth, and orogastric tube to the stomach.

ICU-acquired weakness

Muscle weakness and wasting. This can occur in both the upper and lower extremities, as well as in the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles. It is thought to be related to a combination of factors such as immobility, inflammation, exposure to certain medications, and mechanical ventilation.

Lumbar puncture or spinal tap

A procedure to remove a small amount of fluid that surrounds the spinal cord.


A display that shows heartbeat, oxygen level, blood pressure, and other body functions. Nurses can monitor this outside the ICU room.


A procedure to drain fluid accumulated in the abdomen.

Percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube

A tube that goes through the skin to the stomach to provide long-term nutrition and medication.

Peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line

A thin, flexible tube (catheter) inserted into a vein in the arm and threaded through to the larger veins near the heart.

Pulse oximeter (pulse ox)

A device that clips to the finger, ear, or toes to measure oxygen level in the body.


Patients receiving mechanical ventilation typically require at least one sedating (sleepy) medication to be given as a continuous infusion through their IV. Nurses usually adjust how much sedating medication to give so patients can be comfortable and respond if possible. For some patients, deep sedation is required. This causes them to be unarousable.

Sequential compression devices (SCDs)

Special wraps placed on the legs and attached to a machine. In part, this can help with blood flow and decrease the risk of blood clots (thrombosis) in the leg veins.

Spontaneous awakening trials (SAT)

The sedating medications are temporarily stopped and the patient’s level of alertness is assessed. It is usually done around the same time as a spontaneous breathing trial (SBT).

Spontaneous breathing trial (SBT)

Adjusting the settings on the ventilator to simulate normal breathing. Passing this test helps makes the decision to remove the breathing tube.


Procedure to drain fluid accumulated around the lungs.

Tracheostomy (trach)

A hole placed through the front of the neck and into the windpipe (trachea) that allows air to reach the lungs. A tracheostomy tube is placed into the hole to keep it open for breathing. The term for the surgical procedure to create this opening is tracheotomy. This can be temporary or permanent.

Vasopressors (pressors)

Medications used when a patient’s blood pressure is too low. They work in the heart and blood vessels to increase blood pressure. They often need to be given through a central line.

Ventilator (vent)

A machine to help a patient breathe and increase oxygen level. It connects to the patient through a tube in the mouth (ET tube) or neck (trach).

Terms for Care Beyond the ICU

Hospice care

A type of care that may be needed by patients who have a life expectancy of less than a few months. The goal is to control symptoms and maintain quality of life rather than to cure the underlying illness.

Long-term acute care hospital (LTACH)

Facility providing care for critically ill patients who have a prolonged recovery process and require complex medical care. They may also provide specialized services such as ventilator management and management of tracheostomies. Patients may receive care from a team of health care professionals including physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, and occupational therapists.

Palliative care

Care focused on relieving pain and symptoms, managing stress, and maximizing quality of life. Palliative care can begin at any stage of illness. It is not the same as hospice care.

Rehabilitation hospital

Treatment after discharge from the hospital to help patients regain as much function and independence as possible so they can return to their normal activities. Rehabilitation hospitals offer a wide range of services, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, as well as nursing care and medical management.