Capillary refill time

A review of capillary refill time (CRT) reveals some interesting details about this test:

  • CRT is affected by age – the upper limit of normal for neonates is 3 seconds.
  • It increases with age – one study recommended the upper limit of normal for adult women should be increased to 2.9 seconds and for the elderly to 4.5 seconds.
  • It is affected by multiple external factors (especially ambient temperature).
  • Although it is claimed to have some predictive value in the assessment of dehydration and serious infection in children, studies vary in where and for how long pressure should be applied, and there is poor interobserver reliability.

The latest (5th Edition) of the Advanced Paediatric Life Support Manual states:
Poor capillary refill and differential pulse volumes are neither sensitive nor specific indicators of shock in infants and children, but are useful clinical signs when used in conjunction with the other signs described

In my view, it is best used as a monitor of trends (in accordance with skin temperature and other markers of perfusion), rather than by placing emphasis on the exact number of seconds of a single reading. See below for a video of my perfectly happy and healthy son demonstrating a CRT of over six seconds in a cool room during an English Summer’s day.

The authors of the review caution:
Operating rooms are cold, patients are often draped, which limits access, and because most anesthetics are potent vasodilators, the use of CRT to guide practice is not justified. The possibility of a false-positive or false-negative assessment is simply too great.

Capillary refill time (CRT) is widely used by health care workers as part of the rapid, structured cardiopulmonary assessment of critically ill patients. Measurement involves the visual inspection of blood returning to distal capillaries after they have been emptied by pressure. It is hypothesized that CRT is a simple measure of alterations in peripheral perfusion. Evidence for the use of CRT in anesthesia is lacking and further research is required, but understanding may be gained from evidence in other fields. In this report, we examine this evidence and factors affecting CRT measurement. Novel approaches to the assessment of CRT are under investigation. In the future, CRT measurement may be achieved using new technologies such as digital videography or modified oxygen saturation probes; these new methods would remove the limitations associated with clinical CRT measurement and may even be able to provide an automated CRT measurement.

Capillary Refill Time: Is It Still a Useful Clinical Sign?
Anesth Analg. 2011 Jul;113(1):120-3

The Capillary Refill Video

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