Management of Pain, Anxiety, and Delirium

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205 Management of Pain, Anxiety, and Delirium

Pain, anxiety, and delirium are extremely common in the ICU, where they are often underappreciated and inadequately treated. However, unrelieved pain, anxiety, and delirium contribute to patient distress, evoke the stress response, complicate the management of lifesaving devices, and negatively affect outcome. Ensuring patient comfort and safety is a universal goal that has been endorsed by national medical societies and oversight bodies such as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and The Joint Commission (TJC), which accredits and certifies U.S. healthcare organizations and programs.1 Regional preferences, patient history, institutional bias, and individual patient variability, however, create a wide discrepancy in the approach to sedation of critically ill patients.

image Pain

Existing disease, surgical procedures, trauma, invasive monitors, endotracheal intubation, and nursing interventions are only a few sources of discomfort commonly experienced by patients in the intensive care unit (ICU). In addition to patient discomfort, inadequately treated pain leads to an increased stress response, with resultant tachycardia, increased oxygen consumption, hypercoagulability, immunosuppression, hypermetabolism, and increased endogenous catecholamine activity.25 Insufficient pain relief can also contribute to deficient sleep, disorientation, and anxiety, and long-term effects such as posttraumatic stress disorder may also be seen.6 Unfortunately, pain is often undertreated because of concerns about the adverse effects and addiction potential of opiates and because caregivers lack the necessary skills for proper pain assessment and treatment.3

Assessment of Pain

To be recognized and properly treated, pain must be routinely and objectively assessed. In the ICU, the most valid and reliable indicator of pain is the patient’s self-report.7 Information about pain including location, quality, and intensity should be elicited as part of routine checking and recording of the patient’s vital signs. Intensity can be objectively measured using tools such as the visual analog scale or numeric rating scale.7

It is not uncommon for ICU patients to be unable to communicate with caregivers owing to endotracheal intubation or altered mental status. During such times, behavioral and physiologic indicators must be used to assess pain intensity. The FACES scale8 (Figure 205-1) was developed to objectify the use of facial expression as a measure of pain intensity and shows moderate correlation with different levels of pain.9 Unfortunately, these indicators are nonspecific and subjective in nature, and as a result, clinicians are likely to underestimate and undertreat pain. The Behavioral Pain Scale (Table 205-1) is a valid tool that uses facial expression, limb movements, and ventilator synchrony for calculating a pain score; use of such pain assessments has been associated with lower analgesic and sedative use and with decreased time on the ventilator.10,11


Figure 205-1 FACES scale.

(From Wong DL, Hockenberry-Eaton M, Wilson D et al. Wong’s essentials of pediatric nursing. 6th ed. St Louis: Mosby; 2001, p. 1301.)

TABLE 205-1 The Behavioral Pain Scale

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

Modified from Payen JF, Bru O, Bosson JL et al. Assessing pain in critically ill sedated patients by using a behavioral pain scale. Crit Care Med 2001;29:2258-63.

Management of Pain

In managing pain, nonpharmacologic methods should be attempted first. These include patient repositioning, injury stabilization, removal of noxious or irritating stimuli, and application of heat or cold.3 When nonpharmacologic approaches are insufficient to provide analgesia, regional or systemic therapy is indicated.

Regional Therapy

Regional nerve blockade provides analgesia for a large area of the body without the global effects of systemic analgesia. These procedures should be carried out only by clinicians trained specifically in their performance and management. Intercostal blocks can be used to manage pain due to thoracic or upper abdominal trauma or surgery and can improve respiratory mechanics to reduce the risk of pulmonary compromise.12 Intercostal blocks have the advantage of providing analgesia without sedation or respiratory depression. Placement of an intercostal block carries the risk of pneumothorax and may have to be repeated because of its limited duration of action. Paravertebral blocks are useful for managing pain related to unilateral thoracic or abdominal procedures.13 Paravertebral blockade carries the risk of inadvertent epidural blockade, pneumothorax, and hemothorax. Paravertebral blockade has been shown to have equal effectiveness as epidural blockade for pain control in traumatic rib fractures14 but decreased pain control when compared to epidural blockade in thoracic surgery patients.15 Blockade of the brachial plexus, lumbar plexus, sacral plexus, or the individual nerves of these plexuses may prove beneficial for the relief of pain localized to one extremity and can facilitate patient care such as dressing changes, frequent turning, or physical therapy.16 These nerve blocks are generally well tolerated, can be prolonged by the placement of peripheral nerve catheters, and have the benefit of targeted and localized action.

Epidural analgesia has become increasingly popular for the management of pain from thoracic, abdominal, or lower extremity operative procedures.17 Through a catheter, local anesthetics, opiates, and other pharmaceutical adjuncts like clonidine can be infused in the epidural space to provide bilateral analgesia in specific dermatomes. Low-concentration bupivacaine (e.g., 0.1%) or ropivacaine (e.g., 0.2%) provides excellent sensory blockade with minimal motor blockade.18 Hypotension from sympathetic blockade and inability to ambulate due to decreased proprioception and/or motor weakness are known side effects.18 Opiates such morphine, hydromorphone, and fentanyl are often added to local anesthetic solutions for their synergistic analgesic effects and do not cause sympathetic or motor blockade.18 Possible adverse effects of epidural opiates include respiratory depression, urinary retention, nausea, vomiting, pruritus, and headache.19 Multiple studies and meta-analyses examining epidural analgesia have shown reduced morbidity after major surgery, including improved pulmonary and intestinal function,17,20 but epidural analgesia has not been shown to reduce mortality or length of stay despite improving pulmonary function in a meta-analysis of traumatic rib fracture patients, a commonly prescribed indication.21 Epidural catheters should be used with extreme caution in patients who are receiving anticoagulation, especially low-molecular-weight heparin, because of the risk of epidural hematoma and paralysis from catheter manipulation.22

Systemic Therapy

Systemic analgesics should be administered as part of a goal-directed sedation and analgesia protocol. When administering analgesics, it is important to give them in sufficient quantities to relieve pain and prevent pain from returning to severe pretreatment levels.

Systemic therapies include nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen, but opioids’ analgesic, anxiolytic, antitussive, and sedative properties make them the most common ICU therapy for pain. Although they are the mainstay of analgesia in the ICU, opioids have a number of adverse effects. Respiratory depression and decreased gastrointestinal motility are commonly seen, but their impact can be reduced through proper airway and ventilator management and stimulant laxative use, respectively. Hypotension can also result, particularly in hypovolemic patients who cannot tolerate a reduction in systemic vascular resistance. Hypotension may also be due to vasodilation from histamine release, especially with morphine. Other side effects include pruritus, flushing, urinary retention, and delirium.

The most commonly used opiates in the ICU are morphine, hydromorphone, and fentanyl, though remifentanil is gaining popularity as an ultra short-acting analgesic-sedative drug. All these agents provide less sedation than the commonly used hypnotics or anesthetic agents, and patients receiving analgesic-based regimens with opioids are more likely to have accurate memory and less likely to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder.23

Morphine is typically used as an intermittent intravenous (IV) injection. With IV injection, its peak effect occurs within 15 to 20 minutes, and analgesia lasts 2 to 4 hours. Morphine is given in doses of 2 to 5 mg IV every 5 to 15 minutes until the pain is controlled, followed by similar doses on a scheduled basis every 1 to 2 hours, with extra doses available as needed for breakthrough pain. Morphine is characterized by hepatic metabolism and renal excretion, and its effects can be prolonged in patients with renal impairment secondary to accumulation of an active metabolite (morphine-6 glucuronide).24

Hydromorphone is a more potent congener of morphine with similar pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic profiles.24 Its lack of histamine release and decreased incidence of central nervous system (CNS) side effects make it a useful alternative to morphine, with typical dosing ranges of 0.2 mg to 1 mg IV.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid with a rapid onset (5-15 minutes) and a short duration of action (30-60 minutes).24 Because of its short half-life, it can be easily titrated as a continuous infusion. Loading doses of 25 to 100 µg are given every 5 to 10 minutes until the pain is controlled, followed by infusion rates of 25 to 250 µg/h. Because it causes less histamine release than morphine and does not undergo renal elimination, it is the preferred opioid analgesic in hemodynamically unstable patients or those with renal insufficiency.3

Remifentanil is a derivative of fentanyl that is metabolized by nonspecific blood and tissue esterases.24 It is used primarily as an infusion and has an elimination half-life of under 10 minutes regardless of infusion duration.25 Hypotension and bradycardia are the most common side effects of remifentanil administration, and supplemental analgesic medication is usually required at the conclusion of a remifentanil infusion.25

Few comparative trials of opioid infusions have been performed. Traditionally, the selection of an opioid depends on the likely duration of analgesic infusion and the pharmacology of the specific opioid.3 In a randomized double blind study, the mean percentage of hours at optimal sedation was significantly longer for patients receiving remifentanil versus morphine, and the duration of mechanical ventilation and extubation time were shorter for patients receiving remifentanil.26 More patients in the morphine group also required the addition of midazolam for supplemental sedation. When compared with fentanyl, efficacy of achieving sedation goals was similar with remifentanil, though more breakthrough propofol was required in the fentanyl group.27 There were no differences in time to extubation in both groups, but the percentage of patients experiencing pain after extubation was significantly higher in those receiving remifentanil, indicating the need for proactive pain management when weaning remifentanil.

image Anxiety, Agitation, and Sedation

Anxiety is a diffuse and unpleasant emotion of apprehension that is not associated with a specific threat. Agitation is a state of anxiety accompanied by extreme arousal, irritability, and motor restlessness. Both are very common in the ICU, where a variety of triggers are responsible: excessive stimulation, pain, dyspnea, delirium, inability to communicate, sleep deprivation, metabolic disturbances, and underlying anxiety disorders. Anxiety can be present without agitation, as evidenced by anxious patients who become fearful and withdrawn. Unrelieved anxiety can be a significant source of physical and psychological stress for patients both during an acute event and in the long term, when unpleasant, frightening memories and posttraumatic stress disorder may result.6,28 Left untreated, agitation can become life threatening if it leads to the removal of lifesaving devices such as endotracheal tubes and intravascular lines. Like pain, anxiety and agitation require a systematic, targeted approach in their assessment and treatment.

Sedation Scales and Protocols

There are many scales available for the assessment of sedation and agitation, including the Ramsay Sedation Scale (RSS),29 the Riker Sedation-Agitation Scale (SAS),30 the Motor Activity Assessment Scale (MAAS),31 and Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale (RASS).32 Each has good reliability and validity among adult ICU patients and can be used to set targets for goal-directed therapy. However, only the RASS has been shown to detect variations in the level of consciousness over time or in response to changes in sedative and analgesic drug use.3,33 The RASS is a 10-point scale with discrete criteria to distinguish levels of agitation and sedation (Table 205-2) and takes less than 20 seconds to complete. Numerous studies have now shown that the use of a defined sedation target for the provision of protocol-based, goal-directed therapy reduces patient discomfort and improves outcome.32,34,35 Additionally, the use of protocols that incorporate daily interruption of sedation,36 as well as link these spontaneous awakening trials with daily spontaneous breathing trials,37 has been shown to improve time off mechanical ventilation and shorten ICU and hospital stays, without antecedent adverse effects. Furthermore, the Awakening and Breathing Controlled (ABC) Trial showed a reduction in mortality at 12 months by incorporating this linked approach. Neither of these studies found any long-term neuropsychological consequences of performing daily sedation holds.38,39

TABLE 205-2 The Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale

Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale (RASS)
+4 Combative Combative, violent, immediate danger to staff
+3 Very agitated Pulls or removes tubes or catheters; aggressive
+2 Agitated Frequent nonpurposeful movement; fights ventilator
+1 Restless Anxious, apprehensive, but movements not aggressive or vigorous
 0 Alert and calm  
−1 Drowsy Not fully alert, but has sustained (>10 sec) awakening (eye opening/contact) to voice
−2 Light sedation Drowsy, briefly (<10 sec) awakens to voice or physical stimulation
−3 Moderate sedation Movement or eye opening (but no eye contact) to voice
−4 Deep sedation No response to voice, but movement or eye opening to physical stimulation
−5 Unarousable No response to voice or physical stimulation

Adapted from Sessler CN, Gosnell MS, Grapp MJ et al. The Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale: validity and reliability in adult intensive care unit patients. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2002;166:1338-44; and from Ely EW, Truman B, Shintani A et al. Monitoring sedation status over time in ICU patients: reliability and validity of the Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale [RASS]. JAMA 2003;289:2983-91.

Pharmacologic Management

Pharmacologic management of anxiety, agitation, and sedation follows the same general principal: goal-directed, protocol-based management with intermittent dosing or daily interruption of continuous infusions. Before administering sedative agents, it is important to search for an underlying cause (e.g., hypoxemia, hypoglycemia, hypotension, drug withdrawal), especially when a previously calm patient becomes anxious or agitated. If pain is present, an analgesic should be the initial therapeutic choice. Once pain has been addressed, benzodiazepines, propofol, and dexmedetomidine are the drugs most often used.

Benzodiazepines bind to γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the CNS, thereby providing sedation, anxiolysis, hypnosis, muscle relaxation, anticonvulsant activity, and amnesia.40 These agents do not relieve pain, but their anxiolytic and amnestic properties may improve pain tolerance by moderating the anticipatory pain response.41 Benzodiazepines vary considerably in their pharmacology, and patient-specific factors such as advanced age, drug or alcohol use, and organ dysfunction make their potency, onset, and duration of action even more unpredictable. When given in bolus doses, these drugs can cause hypotension secondary to decreased sympathetic tone, particularly in hemodynamically unstable patients.40 By reducing inhibitions, benzodiazepines may paradoxically increase agitation and aggressiveness. Benzodiazepines can also cause delirium, so their use in treating hyperactive delirium can be counterproductive. Of the benzodiazepines that are currently available, diazepam, midazolam, and lorazepam are used most frequently in the ICU. The onset of action of diazepam is 2 to 5 minutes, making it useful for rapidly sedating acutely agitated patients. However, its long half-life makes prolonged sedation a risk with repeated use, particularly in patients with renal or hepatic dysfunction.40

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