First do no harm... Terminal restlessness or drug-induced delirium

J Palliat Med. 2007 Apr;10(2):345-51. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2006.0112.


Terminal restlessness is a term frequently used to refer to a clinical spectrum of unsettled behaviors in the last few days of life. Because there are many similarities between the clinical pictures observed in terminal restlessness and delirium, we postulate that at times what is referred to as terminal restlessness may actually be an acute delirium sometimes caused by medication used for symptom control. It is important therefore to consider the causes for this distressing clinical entity, treat it appropriately, and ensure the treatment provided does not increase its severity. This brief review aims to consider the medications that are commonly used toward the end of life that may result in a picture of delirium (or terminal restlessness). These include opioids, antisecretory agents, anxiolytics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, antiepileptics, steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This review also aims to raise awareness regarding the recognition and diagnosis of delirium and to highlight the fact that delirium may be reversible in up to half of all cases. Good management of delirium has the potential to significantly improve patient care at the end of life.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents / adverse effects
  • Cholinergic Antagonists / adverse effects
  • Delirium / chemically induced*
  • Delirium / diagnosis
  • Delirium / physiopathology
  • Drug Interactions
  • Humans
  • Palliative Care*
  • Psychomotor Agitation / diagnosis*
  • Psychomotor Agitation / physiopathology
  • Terminal Care*
  • Terminally Ill / psychology*


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents
  • Cholinergic Antagonists