Yet another delirium

Your stroke patient changes his mental status. As for instance these 2 recent studies (Neurology 2011, Stroke 2012) tell us, delirium is quite frequent in stroke, yet it is not clear (to me) whether it is more or less frequent in stroke than in other hospitalized patients, of which about 30% might develop altered mental status, aka delirium.

The german terminology tends to equate “delirium” with the american terminus “hyperactive delirium”, i.e. altered mental status with vegetative and psychomotor activation, leaving the “hypoactive delirium” without a proper label – perhaps this explains the divergent epidemiologic data.

So here is my algorithm for altered mental status:

History (A4D5): The following strongly predispose to delirium

  • Alcohol
  • Angst
  • Atemnot (dyspnea)
  • Aua (pain)
  • Deprivation (sensory deprivation, no hearing/visual aids, no contact)
  • Dehydration
  • Depression
  • Degeneration (dementia and other degenerative disease than Alzheimer’s)
  • Drugs (a long list, all psychotropic, see below)

Labs: SCHNELL Vitamines + Tox

  • Sepsis (CRP, Leukos, PCT, Urine, chest xray)
  • Cardiac (cTnI – MIs can lead to delirium curiously)
  • Heme (anemia)
  • Nephro (Uremia)
  • Endocrine (TSH, Elytes – Addison’s/Cushing)
  • Liver
  • eLytes
  • Vitamins
  • Toxicology

CT/MRI: Stroke, SAE, Tumor etc. (in the Stroke Unit we usually have such images ready, but think of neurologic complications)

EEG: r/o Status and distinguish between withdrawal (fast EEG) and the rest (slowing, metabolic)

LP: r/o encephalitis

As for management,

  • I can only stress the importance of reducing the triggers, in particular psychotropic drugs – remember that opiates are rarely delirogenic, yet Metamizol is (it is one of the most lipophilic of NSAIDs).
  • Withdrawal has to be dealt with.

Think of the non-pharmacologic treatment:

  • get relatives to the bed to hold hands and soothe the patient, if not possible, do it yourself.
  • Provide hearing aids, glasses, a warm and friendly environment without too much but also without too few cues – beware of sensory deprivation.
  • Mobilize, if possible in the corridor, so that they see and hear people.
  • If seeing and hearing is difficult, use a pacifier to provide at least oral sensory stimuli.
  • Give them something to do, to work on.
  • Reorientation: Have calenders and clocks everywhere. Tell them where they are and what they are here for.
  • Reduce physical restraints as much as possible.

What about restraints and drugs? There is not much data about the use of either in the treatment of delirium. I think of most of the therapy as self defense – if they are harming you or themselves, you need to protect them without harming too much.

  • Haloperidol is the standard except for extrapyramidal degenerative patients where it triggers hypoactive delirium. Has few side effects, can be given iv. Risperidone is just like Haloperidol only younger, so more data for delirium in dementia.
  • Quetiapine is good for sedating without too many side effects (except orthostatic hypotension), helps resynchronize day/night, but start slow.
  • Olanzapine is good for rough patients, can be given im.
  • Cholinesterase inhibitors might be helpful, but to do a proper study you would have to define the subgroups that really profit. IMHO it is the sensory deprived semi-demented patients that are kicked over the edge by too much information for a too slow braing that benefit.
  • I personally do like Circadin (retarded L-Melatonin) to resynchronize the diurnal rhythm, but there is obviously no study for it.
  • Please refrain from sedating typical neuroleptics, antihistaminics and antidepressants because of their usually quite pronounced anticholinergic properties [it’s not fair to pull the handbrake during the race].


  • As usual, uptodate has a good article on the topic.
  • Use a pharmacology book to study receptor profiles of neuroleptics.

One thought on “Yet another delirium

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.