Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Management of Pain, Agitation, and Delirium in Mechanically Ventilated Oncology Patients

Written By

Trisha Patel, Erica M. McGovern, Denise Wolfe, Mark E. Lewis and Mashiul Chowdhury

Reviewed: 17 May 2016 Published: 30 November 2016

DOI: 10.5772/64268

From the Edited Volume

Oncology Critical Care

Edited by Jeffrey B. Hoag

Chapter metrics overview

2,169 Chapter Downloads

View Full Metrics


Attention has heightened over the last several years to the importance of managing pain, agitation, and delirium in mechanically ventilated patients due to the multiple long‐term adverse effects patients experience after an intensive care unit (ICU) admission. Furthermore, clinical practice is being molded not just by the guidelines and randomized controlled trials, but also by the information gathered from real patient experiences to improve care at the bedside. The literature continues to remain sparse for providing guidance specifically in the oncology population. Therefore, several resources have been combined to better assist clinicians on making sound decisions for keeping patients comfortable on the ventilator while recognizing the differences in treatment that may need to be employed due to these patients’ medical condition.


  • Ventilation
  • Pain
  • Agitation
  • Delirium
  • Sedation

1. Introduction

One of the leading causes of an intensive care unit (ICU) admission is acute respiratory failure where approximately 44–69% of patients with malignancies requiring mechanical ventilation due to the progression of cancer or chemotherapy toxicity [1]. Improved survival of critically ill oncology patients has been due to the advances in the treatment of malignancies and more appropriate triage of patients for ICU admission [2]. Thus, not all families of intubated patients are met with discussions for end of life or hospice care of their loved one. Goals of weaning and extubation to allow the resumption of cancer treatment have become more common.

There is a potential increase in number of oncology patients that clinicians will manage on mechanical ventilation in the future. Therefore, the need for appropriate protocols to treat pain, agitation, and delirium is especially crucial for a population on chronic pain and anxiety medications prior to admission. However, national guidelines published by the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) in 2013 were primarily based on data from the nononcology population, which poses challenges in applying such concepts to these patients. Such protocol outcomes lack support from clinical trials in oncology patients. Studies involving ICU patients with cancer have largely focused on mortality outcomes, rather than improvement of care, due to these patients’ overall poor prognosis. Thus, the concepts described in the SCCM guidelines must be applied simultaneously with literature on effective treatment of pain and agitation in noncritically ill oncology patients.

In addition to clinical trials, patient interviews conducted in the ICU are gaining more attention to help the clinician better predict the needs of the patient on mechanical ventilation. A prospective study, conducted in a medical ICU, evaluated the symptom experience of patients with a present or past diagnosis of cancer admitted during an 8‐month period. The patients expressed the procedures associated with the greatest pain or discomfort were endotracheal suctioning, endotracheal and nasogastric tubes, mechanical ventilation, arterial puncture, and turning. The aspects of the environment reported to be most stressful were inability to communicate, communicate, sleep disturbances, and limited family visitation hours [2]. In this study, patients still experienced significant discomfort despite liberal administration of opioids and sedatives, along with the implementation of palliative care recommendations. This could be explained by the challenge of accurately assessing pain in mechanically ventilated patients, as well as the rate in which patients felt their stress was not relived by medications. For these reasons, it is imperative that a multidisciplinary team acquires a consistent and universal method by which these patients’ pain, agitation, and delirium are managed. More importantly, the clinicians should have a strong understanding of the pharmacology of opioids and sedatives to ensure the safest agents are chosen.


2. Pain

The prevalence of pain has not been shown to differ between patients actively receiving anticancer treatment and those with an advanced‐ or terminal‐phase disease. Studies have also published that on average 56–82.3% of cancer patients’ pain is not adequately treated [3]. This emphasizes the importance of performing accurate and timely assessments of pain to ensure appropriate treatment. As recommended by SCCM guidelines, the gold standards for pain assessments in ICU patients are the numerical rating scale or visual analog scale (VAS) if a patient is communicative enough to express their level of pain. In some instances, such assessments can be challenging in ICU patients receiving high‐dose sedatives during mechanical ventilation or those with altered level of consciousness [4]. If the patient is unable to self‐report his/her pain, then the most valid and reliable assessments for pain are the behavioral pain scale (BPS) and the critical pain observation tool (CPOT) outlined in Tables 1 and 2 [5], which are consistent with recommendations by NCCN guidelines for adult cancer pain. Vital signs alone are no longer recommended for detecting symptoms of pain. They only should be used as a cue to perform further assessments [4].

Indicator Descriptor Score
Facial expression No muscular tension observed Relaxed, neutral 0
Presence of frowning, brow lowering, orbit tightening, and levator contraction Tensed 1
All of the above facial movements plus eyelid tightly closed Grimacing 2
Body movements Does not move at all (does not necessarily mean absence of pain) The absence of movements 0
Slow, cautious movements, touching or rubbing the pain site, seeking attention through movements Protection 1
Pulling tube, attempting to sit up, moving limbs/thrashing, not following commands, striking at staff, trying to climb out of bed Restlessness 2
Muscle tension evaluation by passive flexion and extension of upper extremities No resistance to passive movements Relaxed 0
Resistance to passive movements Tense, rigid 1
Strong resistance to passive movements, inability to complete them Very tense or rigid 2
Compliance with the ventilator (intubated patients)
Alarms not activated, easy ventilation Tolerating ventilator or movement 0
Alarms stop spontaneously Coughing but tolerating 1
Asynchrony: blocking ventilation, alarms frequently activated Fighting ventilator 2
Vocalization (extubated patients) Talking in normal tone
or no sound
Talking in normal tone
or no sound
Sighing, moaning Sighing, moaning 1
Crying out, sobbing Crying out, sobbing 2

Table 1.

Critical pain observation tool (CPOT) [5].

Chronic pain affects greater than 60% of oncology patients, with upwards of 66% experiencing failure of therapy [6]. Subsequently, the majority of these patients are opioid tolerant and on high doses of narcotics prior to being admitted. Upon ICU admission, many patients do not have oral access or have multisystem failure that can preclude them from receiving specific types of opioids. It becomes imperative that thorough medication reconciliations are performed to determine the amount of daily opioids the patient takes at home so that they can be converted to the most appropriate and safest formulation in the ICU. When performing such conversions, clinicians must consider incomplete cross tolerance if the patient is placed on an opioid they are not receiving prior to admission. Long‐term exposure to one drug can result in the development of tolerance to those with similar structures. However, this tolerance is rarely complete with agents that bind to different receptors, thus the analgesic effect of the new agent is enhanced in the patient. Without appropriate conversions, the patient is at risk of withdrawal or overdose when rotating opioids. However, the heightened analgesic effect due to incomplete cross tolerance can also lead to excessive side effects such as respiratory depression, nausea, sedation, and dysphoria [7]. The total daily dose of the patient's regimen, both IV and oral, should be converted to the opioid to be initiated in the ICU using Table 3 and reduced by 20–30% for cross intolerance. Persistent or chronic pain should be controlled using a combination of long‐acting agents, either extended or sustained release oral formulations or continuous IV infusions, in conjunction with short‐acting agent. Long‐acting opioid typically comprises 50% of the total daily requirement [11].

Item Description Score
Facial expression Relaxed 1
Partially tightened (e.g., brow lowering) 2
Fully tightened (e.g., eyelid closing) 3
Grimacing 4
Upper limb movements No movement 1
Partially bent 2
Fully bent with finger flexion 3
Permanently retracted 4
Compliance with mechanical ventilation Tolerating movement 1
Coughing but tolerating ventilation for most of the time 2
Fighting ventilator 3
Unable to control ventilation 4

Table 2.

Behavioral pain scale (BPS) [5].

Society of Critical Care Medicine Guidelines emphasize that many sources of pain have been identified in ICU patients related to not only surgery, trauma, burns, or cancer but also procedures. In a comparative, descriptive study, data were obtained from over 6000 patients to describe pain intensity and procedural distress. Procedures were defined as wound dressing changes, turning, tracheal suctioning, and wound drainage removal. The average pain score was 5–7, and the most distressful procedures were turning and wound care. Unfortunately, less than 20% of these patients actually received opiates before the procedures. With procedures performed so frequently in the ICU, this remains one of the areas that is poorly managed [12]. Therefore, it is highly encouraged patients are pre-treated with bolus doses of opioids.

Unrelieved pain leads to long‐term negative outcomes, such as patients recalling traumatic memories of pain during their ICU admission. It has also been shown that inadequately treated pain is associated with physiological consequences such as increase in catecholamines leading to arteriolar vasoconstriction, impaired tissue perfusion, catabolic hypermetabolism resulting in hyperglycemia, lipolysis, and breakdown of muscle [4].

Drug Oral (mg) Parenteral (mg)
Morphine 30 10
Codeine 200 100
Oxycodone 20 n/a
Hydrocodone  30 n/a
Hydromorphone 7.5 1.5
Fentanyl n/a 0.1
Methadone Use ratio of 3:1 (morphine/methadone) to convert methadone to morphine
equivalents and then convert to desired opioid
Tramadol 120 100

Table 3.

Opioid equianalgesic doses [810].

Analgesic Onset (IV) Duration
of action
t½ Dosing1 Common toxicities/major precautions
Fentanyl IV 1–2 min 0.1–5 h 1.5–
6 h
25–100 mcg every
15 min PRN pain
Infusion: 25–500
Large volume of distribution and high lipophilicity increasing risk of accumulation in tissues and sedation with prolonged infusions; less hypotension effect than morphine; accumulation with hepatic failure; rare: chest wall rigidity at high doses serotonin syndrome
5–15 min  4–5 h 2–3 h 0.2–0.6 mg every
15 min PRN pain
0.5–5 mg/h
Alternative to fentanyl and morphine if long‐acting agent is needed; accumulation in hepatic failure
Morphine IV 5–10 min  3–6 h 3–7 h 2–4 mg PRN pain
Infusion: 2–15
Common: bradycardia/hypotension, respiratory
depression, and sedation especially at higher
doses. Caution with risk of bronchospasm,
histamine release, accumulation of active
metabolite (3‐morphine glucuronide) in renal
failure that can lead to seizures
Methadone oral 1–3 days  4–6 h 8–59 h 2.5–10 mg every
8–12 h (titrated
slowly every 3–5
Common: prolongation of QTc, sedation
Caution with multiple drug interactions; unpredictable pharmacokinetic/pharmacodynamics; hepatic and renal failure will delay clearance. Rare: serotonin syndrome
Tramadol (for
as second‐line
agent in patients
who did not
respond to
1 h 9 h 6–8 h 50 mg once or twice daily titrated to max of 400 mg/day Common: somnolence, constipation, dizziness,
and hypotension. Reduce dose in renal or hepatic
dysfunction; precipitates seizures in patients
with history of seizures or those receiving
medications that reduce seizure threshold;
may increase risk of serotonin syndrome
with SSRIs and SNRIs

Table 4.

Comparison of most common opioids used in oncology ICU mechanically ventilated patients [4, 1319].

1More aggressive dosing recommendations based on higher tolerance to opioids in most cancer patients. More conservative dosing is recommended for opioid‐naïve patients.

PRN, as needed; t½, half‐life of elimination; SSRIs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors; SNRIs, serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors; IV, intravenous; QTc, corrected QT interval.

Drug/Class Onset of action t½ Dosing Place in therapy Common toxicities/major precautions
APAP IV 5–10 min 2.4 h 650 mg q4 h‐
1000 mg IV q 6 h
(max 4 gm/day)
Opioid sparing effect.
IV is a suitable agent
for the treatment of
mild to moderate
pain in patients
with no oral access
or to assist with
reaching peak levels
with the first dose
Adjust dose with CrCl <30 mL/min or with CRRT
APAP PO 30–60 min 2 h 325–1000 mg q4–6
h (max 4 gm/day)
Risk for hepatotoxicity; use lower doses in older adults, heavy alcohol use or those who are malnourished
Ketorolac (IM/IV) 10 min 2.4–
8.6 h
30 mg IM/IV, then
15–20 mg IM or IV
q6 h up to 5 days
(max 120 mg/day 
× 5 days)
Ketorolac for acute
pain postsurgery
Benefit has been
shown when added
to an opioid in
WHO Step 3 More
effective for cancer
pain associated with
Avoid in renal failure, GI bleeding, platelet abnormality, concomitant angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitory therapy, congestive heart failure; risk of drug interactions with anticoagulants and corticosteroids
Ibuprofen (PO) 25 min 1.8–
2.5 h
400 mg q4 h (max
2.4 gm/day)
Ketamine 30–40 sec 2–3 h Loading dose: 0.1–
0.5 mg/kg
Maintenance dose:
0.05–0.4 mg/kg/h
May decrease doses
of concurrently
used opioids;
provides analgesia
and sedation
as a “dissociative
anesthetic”; the
treatment of chronic
cancer pain not
controlled by
opioids or opioids
plus adjuvant analgesics
Mild to severe emergence
reactions (e.g., confusion,
excitement, irrational
behavior, hallucinations,
delirium) [rare];
hypertension; arrhythmias
*Dexamethasone most often prescribed because it causes less fluid retention due to its lower mineralocorticoid effect
N/A N/A Dexamethasone
2–8 mg oral, IV, or
SQ q8 h Prednisone
7.5–10 mg daily
Useful at any step in
the WHO analgesic
ladder when pain is
due to edema or
inflammation such
as metastatic bone
pain, neuropathic,
and visceral pain
Gastrointestinal bleeding;
increase risk of infection;
increased blood pressure;
metabolic abnormalities;
psychiatric disturbances;
increased appetite, weight
gain; insomnia
Regimens should be
tapered rather than
abruptly discontinued
if therapy exceeds
2 weeks
Gabapentin (PO) N/A 5–7 h Starting dose=100
mgTID 900–3600
mg/day in three
divided doses
Neuropathic pain CNS depression (common); confusion; ataxia; adjust dose in renal impairment; abrupt discontinuation associated with drug withdrawal syndrome; seizures; adjust for renal impairment
4–5 h 26–65 h, then 12–17 h Starting dose = 50–
100 mg BID; 100–200
mg q4–6 h (max 1200
Neuropathic pain Somnolence (common); nystagmus; lethargy; Stevens‐Johnson syndrome (rare); toxic epidermal necrolysis; agranulocytosis; adjust for CrCl <10 or hemodialysis; caution with hepatic impairment

Table 5.

Comparison of major non‐opioid analgesic classes [4,2023].

PO, by mouth; IM, intramuscular; IV, intravenous; CrCl, creatinine clearance; BID, twice daily; TID, three times daily; APAP, acetaminophen; t½, half‐life of elimination; SQ, subcutaneous; CRRT, continuous renal replacement therapy; q, every; N/A, non‐applicable; GI, gastrointestinal; CNS, central nervous system.

Managing pain in ICU patients, especially the mechanically ventilated, is almost always in conjunction with managing agitation and delirium. Therefore, pain can be managed more effectively and appropriately with several simple concepts employed:

  1. Nurses should perform consistent and accurate pain assessments using the tools validated in ICU patients with reassessments performed after analgesics are administered to evaluate response to therapy.

  2. Intermittent boluses versus continuous IV infusion strategies should be selected based on the frequency and severity of pain and/or patient's mental status. The use of patient‐controlled administration (PCA) should be highly considered for patients responsive and cognitive to control delivery of boluses.

  3. The type of opioid selected for each patient should be based on the drug pharmacokinetics/pharmacodynamics including any risks for altered clearance if the patient has evidence of organ dysfunction (see Tables 4 and 5).

  4. Oral formulations should be limited to those patients with adequate gastrointestinal absorption.

  5. Regional or neuraxial (spinal or epidural) modalities can be considered for postoperative analgesia.

  6. Administer analgesics pre‐emptively prior to procedures (i.e., chest tube removal, line insertion, turning the patient).

  7. Analgesic agents should be started prior to sedative agents if there is any suspicion of pain. After sedatives are initiated, pain assessments can be harder to perform and less accurate in ensuring the patient is comfortable.

  8. Pain medications should be titrated upward by 10–25% and doses selected based on the pain assessments using nursing driven scales. Opioid rotation should be considered if pain is inadequately controlled or persistent adverse effects are experienced [11].

  9. Use of nursing‐driven protocol with effective multidisciplinary discussions for adjustment of such medication orders should occur on a routine basis.

2.1. Route of administration/formulation

The route of administration preferred for non‐ICU patients is often oral, whereas for critically ill patients, intravenous is optimal when there is known or suspected altered gastrointestinal (GI) tract absorption. Furthermore, other routes such as intramuscular (IM), subcutaneous, or transdermal requiring systemic absorption are frequently avoided in critically ill patients due to erratic and unpredictable absorption [13]. Risks of changes in perfusion due to hemodynamic instability and fluid shifts can lead to potentiated or subtherapeutic effects.

2.2. Pharmacokinetic/pharmacodynamic properties and side effect profile

Table 4 illustrates the comparison of the most common analgesics used in ICU mechanically ventilated patients, with the exception of meperidine, which is discouraged in an ICU setting due to the high risk of neurotoxicity. Methadone is occasionally avoided due to the risk of QT prolongation, interaction with common ICU medications, and difficulty dosing. In the oncology setting, patients taking methadone at home can be encountered, and due to its multiple side effects, it should be converted to alternative opioids if the patient is unstable or lacks oral access. Methadone should not be discontinued abruptly without adequate alternative opioids initiated as replacement therapy to prevent withdrawal.

When the patient is hemodynamically unstable or has renal insufficiency, then fentanyl or hydromorphone is recommended as first line agents. Either of two agents, in addition to morphine, can be used for patients with no renal insufficiency or those who are stable [24]. Clinicians should also be cognitive of possible inadequate metabolism and/or clearance of medications in patients with renal and hepatic cancers which may not be evident by laboratory values.

2.3. Nonopioid analgesics

Opioid analgesics are most often the first line agents employed in general ICU patients with the ease of administration and ability to titrate. However, in patients with cancer, nonopioid agents provide a novel approach to better controlling their pain long term and helping to reduce opioid requirements. The WHO analgesic ladder provides guidelines for the treatment of cancer pain by suggesting a sequential three step approach based on severity of pain. Nonopioids are recommended for mild pain, weak opioids for moderate pain, and strong opioids for severe pain with fixed scheduled dosing according to the pharmacokinetic properties of the drugs. Typically, the nonopioids initiated in step 1 should be continued in conjunction with opioids added in the next step to allow for agents with different mechanisms of actions to improve analgesic control. There are several common nonopioid agents used to treat cancer pain that can be continued in an ICU if the patient has appropriate access. Table 5 compares the various classes of nonopioid agents and pharmacokinetics as well as common toxicities of which to be aware when using such agents in the ICU setting. Other nonopioids found to effective in the oncology population are bisphosphonates for bone metastases and medicinal cannabinoids that are not encouraged in the ICU due to their unsafe profile.

2.4. Unconventional modes of administration

Breathlessness is often a distressing symptom in oncology patients especially during end of life. Alternative routes of opioid administration, via inhaled nebulization and intranasal, have been studied. Unfortunately, data are still lacking on the efficacy of such routes of administration. However, benefit has been seen due to the short onset of action with these modes of delivery. Both morphine and fentanyl have been administered through nebulization, and fentanyl is preferred intranasally due its lipophilic properties allowing for better absorption [21].

2.5. Protocolized management of pain

In mechanically ventilated patients, use of protocols can greatly reduce the delay in treating pain, ICU length of stay, high dose analgesics, and duration of mechanical ventilation. It is advised to initiate orders that allow nurses to select the appropriate dose of an analgesic agent based on the pain scale score. Minimal data exist on the incremental doses that should be administered with various pain scores. However, orders for the analgesic agent of choice have been applied to our current practice in an oncology ICU and proven to be effective which are listed as follows:

  • Fentanyl 25 mcg IV every 15 min as needed for numeric pain score 1–2, critical pain observation tool (CPOT) 0–2, and/or Richmond agitation‐sedation scale (RASS) +1.

  • Fentanyl 50 mcg IV every 15 min as needed for numeric pain score 3–4, CPOT 3–4, and/or RASS +2.

  • Fentanyl 75 mcg IV every 15 min as needed for numeric pain score 5–7, CPOT 5–6, and/or RASS +3.

  • Fentanyl 100 mcg IV every 15 min as needed for numeric pain score 8–10, CPOT 7–8, and/or RASS +4.

Initial doses are defaulted but can be changed by the prescriber if more aggressive or more conservative doses are needed.

Pain should be assessed routinely especially after analgesic agents are administered. Most nursing standards expect pain to be reassessed within 15–30 min after treatment, and thus, the frequency of analgesic medications should be written to allow redosing in a timely manner if needed [4].


3. Analgesia-First Sedation

Recent literature now emphasizes the importance of adequately treating pain prior to use of sedatives. The most common source of agitation identified in intubated patients is pain. If agitation is treated immediately with sedatives, then the patient is at risk of experiencing the physiologic consequences previously discussed because pain remains untreated. Therefore, it may be beneficial to have intermittent analgesic medication orders written to PRN RASS scores in addition to incremental pain scores to allow the nurse to adequately use such medications for agitation (as shown in example above).

If pain is ruled out as the cause of agitation, then other causes should be promptly considered such as hypoxemia, hypoglycemia, hypotension, or withdrawal from alcohol or other drugs [4]. Aside from treating such underlying causes, strategies should be used to help reduce agitation by maintaining comfort for the patient, frequent reorientation, and optimization of the environment to maintain normal sleep patterns. After addressing such issues, sedatives only then should be considered if the patient remains agitated with a goal sedation level established: light for goals of extubation (i.e. the patient is alert, calm, arousable, and able to follow commands) or deep sedation with goals of synchronization with the ventilator, or the prevention of movement in severe trauma/burns/paralysis (i.e. patient is unresponsive to painful stimuli, unable to follow commands) with goals of synchronization with the ventilator, or the prevention of movement severe trauma/burns). Most patients should have goals of light sedation as many studies have demonstrated increased ICU length of stay, mechanical ventilation, delirium, and muscle deconditioning with deep, prolonged sedation [2527].

Agitation should be assessed as frequently as pain is assessed using the RASS or SAS scales (Tables 6 and 7). Recommendations for options to treat agitation are in Table 8.

Scale  Label Description
+4 Combative Combative, violent
+3 Very agitated Pulls to remove tubes or catheters; aggressive
+2 Agitated Frequent nonpurposeful movement, fights ventilator
+1 Restless Anxious, apprehensive, movements not aggressive
0 Alert and calm Spontaneously pays attention to caregiver
−1 Drowsy Not fully alert, but has sustained awakening to voice (eye opening & contact >10 s)
−2 Light sedation Briefly awakens to voice (eyes open & contact < 10 s)
−3 Moderate sedation Movement or eye opening to voice (no eye contact)
−4 Deep sedation No response to voice, but movement or eye opening to physical stimulation
−5 Unarousable No response to voice or physical stimulation

Table 6.

Richmond agitation sedation scale (RASS) [28].

Score  Term Descriptor
7 Dangerous 
Pulling at ET tube, trying to remove catheters, climbing over bedrail, striking at staff, thrashing side to side
6 Very
Requiring restraint and frequent verbal reminding of limits, biting ET tube
5 Agitated Anxious or physically agitated, calms to verbal instructions
4 Calm and
Calm, easily arousable, follows commands
3 Sedated Difficult to arouse but awakens to verbal stimuli or gentle shaking, follow simple commands but drifts off again
2 Very
Arouses to physical stimuli but does not communicate or follow commands, may move spontaneously
1 Unarous
Minimal or no response to noxious stimuli, does not communicate or follow commands
ET, endotracheal.

Table 7.

Sedation agitation scale [29].

Drug/MOA Onset of action t½ Effects Dosing Place in therapy Common toxicities/major precautions
Selective α2‐agonist
5–10 min 1.8–3.1
1 mcg/kg
over 10 min.
Assists in keeping
patient calm and
arousable to wean
off the ventilator or
for the treatment
of acute hyperactive
delirium; causes
minimal respiratory
Common: bradycardia
and hypotension,
hypertension with
loading dose.
Rare: loss of
airway reflexes, risk
for withdrawal after
prolonged (7
days) use. Infusion
must be tapered
slowly to prevent
rebound agitation;
slower emergence with
hepatic failure
Binds to
and M1
1–2 min 26–32 h Sedative,
Bolus: 5
Light or heavy
sedation; ideal for
to allow for daily
neurological assessments
or medical ICU
requiring deep
sedation for vent
treatment of
seizures and
elevated intracranial
Hypotension; respiratory
(with prolonged use),
rhabdomyolysis (rare),
pancreatitis (rare),
deep sedation with
propofol is associated
with longer emergence
times; lipid emulsion
delivering 1.1 kcal/mL
Activate γ‐
acid A
2–5 min 3–11 h Sedative, hypnotic, anxiolytic, amnestic, antiemetic, anticonvulsant 1–14 mg/h
(max ∼0.1 mg/kg/h)
Patients requiring
deep sedation;
treatment of
seizures or
Respiratory depression;
hypotension; accumulates
in hepatic dysfunction;
active metabolite
accumulates in renal
dysfunction; drug
has potential to
accumulate in adipose
tissue with continuous
Activate γ‐aminobutyric acid A (GABA A) neuronal receptors
15–20 min 8‐15 h Sedative, hypnotic, anxiolytic, amnestic, antiemetic, anticonvulsant 1–10 mg/h Patients requiring
deep sedation;
treatment of
seizures or
alcohol withdrawal
Respiratory depression; hypotension; propylene glycol‐related acidosis (rare); nephrotoxicity evident by an osmolar gap greater than 10–12 mOsm/L; accumulates in hepatic dysfunction; emergence from lorazepam after prolonged infusions will be longer than midazolam due to its greater potency and slower clearance; drug has potential to accumulate in adipose tissue with continuous infusions

Table 8.

Sedative agents [4,23,30].

t½, half‐life of elimination; MOA, mechanism of action.


4. Delirium

Delirium is defined as a syndrome with acute onset of cerebral dysfunction due to a change or fluctuation in baseline mental status, inattention, or disorganized thinking [4]. Two forms of delirium can exist: hyperactive (agitated, associated with hallucinations or delusions) or hypoactive (calm, lethargic, confused, and sedated). With delirium now being shown to be a strong predictor of negative long‐term outcomes, it is imperative that regular assessments are performed to identify incidences of delirium and implementing preventative measures [24,31]. Such strategies include early mobilization, maintenance of light sedation while avoiding benzodiazepines in those with underlying risk factors for delirium, promoting sleep in adult ICU patients by optimizing environmental factors such as light, noise, clustering patient care activities, and decreasing stimuli at night.

Medication‐induced delirium is not well studied and the exact onset, duration, or severity has yet to be confirmed. Delirium is multifactorial and, therefore, medications should not be solely considered as the cause in a patient experiencing changes in mental status. Most common causes of delirium are in Table 9. Benzodiazepines have been studied extensively as a possible risk factor for delirium. The data concerning benzodiazepines and outcomes with causing delirium remain controversial. The MENDS and SEDCOM studies had similar results showing higher delirium free days with or without coma when dexmedetomidine was administered compared to midazolam or lorazepam. Furthermore, both have similar results in showing no difference in mortality and the length of ICU stay [33,34]. However, another meta‐analysis including six trials comparing benzodiazepine versus nonbenzodiazepine sedatives found opposite results. The ICU length of stay and duration of mechanical ventilation were significantly higher in the benzodiazepine group with no difference found in delirium prevalence or all‐cause mortality [35]. Until further research can clarify such effects, caution is still warranted when using these sedatives and other risk factors shown in Table 10 should be considered as well.

Iatrogenic Exposure to sedative and opioid medications
Environmental Prolonged physical restraints
Disorientation to time and space
Other Drug or alcohol withdrawal
Medication induced Anticholinergics

Table 9.

Common causes of delirium [4,32].

Pre‐existing delirium
History of baseline hypertension
Sedative‐associated coma
Mechanical ventilation
Emergency surgery prior to ICU admission
Metabolic acidosis
Delirium on the previous day

Table 10.

Risk factors for delirium [36].

Two scales for assessing delirium with the highest psychometric (e.g., validity and reliability) scores are the CAM‐ICU and the ICDSC [37]. Delirium should be assessed every 8–12 hours, only after sedatives are decreased or interrupted and preferably during daytime hours.

Drug Usual starting dose/available formulations  Short‐term adverse effects  Additional
Low risk Moderate to high risk
Olanzapine  5 mg (PO,
disintegrating tablet,
EPS, NMS Anticholinergic,
weight gain, dyslipidemia
Increased risk of accumulation in elderly, female, and hepatic/renal impairment; QT prolongation
Quetiapine  12.5–25 mg (PO) NMS, weight gain, tardive dyskinesia, seizures, EPS Anticholinergic (dry mouth, constipation), sedation, dizziness, Hypotension (with rapid titration), weight gain, dyslipidemia Associated with lowest risk of EPS and tardive dyskinesia
Risperidone  0.5–1 mg (PO, disintegrating tablet) Anticholinergic, NMS, cardiac conduction abnormalities Orthostatic hypotension (with rapid titration),
EPS associated with doses >6 mg/day
Ziprasidone  20 mg PO 10 mg IM Anticholinergic, sedation, EPS, NMS QTc prolongation IM formulation contains a nephrotoxin called cyclodextrin that can accumulate in renal impairment; reduce dose in hepatic impairment

Table 11.

Atypical antipsychotics for the treatment of delirium [24,30,38,39].

PO, by mouth; IM, intramuscular; EPS, extrapyramidal symptoms; NMS, neuroleptic malignant syndrome.

Treatment of delirium should be directed at the probable underlying causes (e.g., alcohol or drug withdrawal, infection, dehydration, discomfort) and consider pharmacologic agents only if needed. SCCM guidelines provide a Grade C recommendation that “atypical antipsychotics may reduce the duration of delirium in adult ICU patients.” No evidence exists on the efficacy of haloperidol in reducing delirium and is associated with higher incidences of extrapyramidal and cardiac side effects [38]. The atypical antipsychotics, which have been studied and shown to be beneficial, are listed in Table 11. If such agents are initiated, it is crucial to ensure they are discontinued upon discharge or follow‐up strategies are in place in the outpatient setting. Patients should also be monitored carefully for the adverse effects listed.

The fundamental component of implementing successful protocols to manage pain, agitation, and delirium in mechanically ventilated patients is a multidisciplinary team. Developing a comprehensive protocol can help reduce costs, improve ICU outcomes, and create more consistent practices. As presented earlier, the SCCM PAD Guideline concepts can be employed but the basic principles established in cancer patients for managing pain and anxiety must also be considered to achieve optimal outcomes.


  1. 1. Soares M, Depuydt PO. Mechanical ventilation in cancer patients: clinical characteristics and outcomes. Crit Care Clin. 2010; 26:41–58.
  2. 2. Nelson JE, Meier DE, et al. Self‐reported symptom experience of critically‐ill cancer patients receiving intensive care. Crit Care Med. 2001; 29:277–282.
  3. 3. Ripamonti CI, Bandieri E, et al. Management of cancer pain: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines. Ann Oncol. 2011; 22 (Suppl. 6):vi69–vi77.
  4. 4. Barr J, Fraser GL, Puntillo K, et al. Clinical practice guidelines for the management of pain, agitation, and delirium in adult patients in the intensive care unit. Crit Care Med. 2013; 41:263–306.
  5. 5. Stites M. Observational pain scales in critically ill adults. Crit Care Nurse. 2013; 33(3):68–79.
  6. 6. Beutler AS. Cancer pain. Retrieved January 01, 2016, from‐pain/cancer‐pain.
  7. 7. Dumas EO, Pollack GM. Opioid tolerance development: a pharmacokinetic/pharmacodynamic perspective. AAPS J. 2008; 10(4):537–551.
  8. 8. Yu X. Analgesic management of chronic pain patients in the ICU. ICU Dir Clin Rev. 2013; 4(5):217–222.
  9. 9. Mary Lynn M. Update to Demystifying Opioid Conversion Calculations: A Guide for Effective Dosing. Bethesda, MD: American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, 2009.Web.
  10. 10. McPherson ML. Demystifying Opioid Conversion Calculations: A Guide for Effective Dosing. Bethesda, MD, USA: ASHP, 2009. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 3 February 2016.
  11. 11. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines: Adult Cancer Pain. Version 2.2016. Retrieved from:
  12. 12. Puntillo KA, White C, et al. Patients’ perceptions and responses to procedural pain: results from Thunder Project II. Am J Crit Care. 2001; 10(4):238–251.
  13. 13. Erstad BL, Puntillo K, et al. Pain management principles in the critically ill. CHEST. 2009; 135:1075–1086.
  14. 14. Jacobi J, Fraser GL, et al. Clinical practice guidelines for the sustained use of sedatives and analgesics in the critically ill adult. Crit Care Med. 2002; 30 (1):119–141.
  15. 15. Ketorolac Tromethamine injection [package insert]. Schaumburg, IL: Sagent Pharmaceuticals; revised 2/2014.
  16. 16. Orirmev ® (acetaminophen) [package insert]. Hazelwood, MO: Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals; revised 12/2014.
  17. 17. Argoff CE, Silvershein DI. A comparison of long‐ and short‐acting opioids for the treatment of chronic noncancer pain: tailoring therapy to meet patient needs. Mayo Clin Proc. 2009; 84(7):602–612.
  18. 18. DOLOPHINE® HYDROCHLORIDE CII (Methadone Hydrochloride Tablets, USP) [package insert]. Columbus, OH: Roxane Laboratories, Inc. Revised October 2006.
  19. 19. Dworkin RH, O’Connor AB, et al. Pharmacologic management of neuropathic pain: evidence‐based recommendations. Pain. 2007; 132:237–251.
  20. 20. Acetaminophen (paracetamol): Drug Information. In:UpToDate. Lexicomp. Accessed on December 10, 2015.
  21. 21. Bausewein C, Simon ST. Inhaled nebulized and intranasal opioids for the relief of breathlessness. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2014; 8:208–212.
  22. 22. Vyvey M. Steroids as pain relief adjuvants. Palliative Care Files. Can Fam Phys. 2010; 56:1295–1297.
  23. 23. Riker RR, Fraser GL. Adverse effects associated with sedatives, analgesics, and other drugs that provide patient comfort in the intensive care unit. Pharmacotherapy. 2005; 25(5 Pt 2):8S–18S.
  24. 24. Czosnowski QA, Whitman CB. Sedatives, analgesics, and neuromuscular blockage in the ICU. In: Roberts PR, Todd SR, editors. Comprehensive Critical Care: Adult. Mount Prospect: Society of Critical Care Medicine; 2012. pp. 759–778.
  25. 25. Tanaka LS, Azevedo LP, et al. Early sedation and clinical outcomes of mechanically ventilated patients: a prospective multicenter cohort study. Crit Care. 2014; 18(R156):1–10.
  26. 26. Treggiari MM, Romand JA, et al. Randomized trial of light versus deep sedation on mental health after critical illness. Crit Care Med. 2009; 37:2527–2534.
  27. 27. Kollef MH, Levy NT, et al. The use of continuous IV sedation is associated with prolongation of mechanical ventilation. CHEST 1998; 114:541–548.
  28. 28. Sessler CN, Gosnell MS, et al. The Richmond agitation–sedation scale. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2002; 166(10):1338–1344.
  29. 29. Riker RR, Picard JT, Fraser GL. Prospective evaluation of the sedation‐agitation scale for adult critically ill patients. Crit Care Med. 1999; 27:1325–1329.
  30. 30. Tietze K, Fuchs B. Sedative‐analgesic medications in critically ill adults: Properties, dosage regimens, and adverse effects. In: UpToDate, Parsons PE (Ed), Waltham, MA: UpToDate. Accessed on February 25, 2016.
  31. 31. Boogaard M, Schoonhoven L. et al. Delirium in critically ill patients: impact on long‐term health‐related quality of life and cognitive functioning. Crit Care Med. 2012; 40:112–118.
  32. 32. Schreiber MP, Colantuoni E. et al. Corticosteroids and transition to delirium in patients with acute lung injury. Crit Care Med. 2014; 42:1480–1486.
  33. 33. Riker RR, Shehabi Y, et al. Dexmedetomidine vs Midazolam for sedation of critically ill patients a randomized trial. JAMA. 2009; 301(5):489–499.
  34. 34. Pandharipande PP, Pun BT, et al. Effect of sedation with dexmedetomidine vs lorazepam on acute brain dysfunction in mechanically ventilated patients. The MENDS randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2007; 298 (22):2644–2653.
  35. 35. Fraser GL, Devlin JW, et al. Benzodiazepine versus nonbenzodiazepine‐based sedation for mechanically ventilated, critically ill adults: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomized trials. Crit Care Med. 2013; 41:S30–S38.
  36. 36. Zaal IJ, Devlin JW, et al. A systematic review of risk factors for delirium in the ICU. Crit Care Med. 2015; 43:40–47.
  37. 37. Brummel NE, Vasilevskis EE. Implementing delirium screening in the ICU: secrets to success. Crit Care Med. 2013; 41:1–13.
  38. 38. Haddad PM, Sharma SG. Adverse effects of atypical antipyschotics. Differential risk and clinical implications. CNS Drugs. 2007; 21(911):911–936.
  39. 39. SEROQUEL (quetiapine) [package insert]. Wilmington, DE: AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP; 1997.

Written By

Trisha Patel, Erica M. McGovern, Denise Wolfe, Mark E. Lewis and Mashiul Chowdhury

Reviewed: 17 May 2016 Published: 30 November 2016