Sleep and delirium in the intensive care unit

Minerva Anestesiol. 2008 Jun;74(6):329-33.


Intensive Care Unit (ICU) patients almost uniformly suffer from sleep disruption. Even though the role of sleep disturbances is not still adequately understood, they may be related to metabolic, immune, neurological and respiratory dysfunction and could worsen the quality of life after discharge. A harsh ICU environment, underlying disease, mechanical ventilation, pain and drugs are the main reasons that underlie sleep disruption in the critically ill. Polysomnography is the gold standard in evaluating sleep, but it is not feasible in clinical practice; therefore, other objective (bispectral index score [BIS] and actigraphy) and subjective (nurse and patient assessment) methods have been proposed, but their adequacy in ICU patients is not clear. Frequent evaluation of neurological status with validated tools is necessary to avoid excessive or prolonged sedation in order to better titrate patient-focused therapy. Hypnotic agents like benzodiazepines can increase total sleep time, but they alter the physiological progression of sleep phases, and decrease the time spent in the most restorative phases compared to the phases normally mediated by melatonin; melatonin production is decreased in critically ill patients, and as such, exogenous melatonin supplementation may improve sleep quality. Sleep disruption and the development of delirium are frequently related, both because of sleep scarcity and inappropriate dosing with sedatives. Delirium is strongly related to increased ICU morbidity and mortality, thus the resolution of sleep disruption could significantly contribute to improved ICU outcomes. An early evaluation of delirium is strongly recommended because of the potential to resolve the underlying causes or to begin an appropriate therapy. Further studies are needed on the effects of strategies to promote sleep and on the evaluation of better sleep in clinical outcomes, particularly on the development of delirium.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Critical Illness
  • Delirium* / etiology
  • Delirium* / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Sleep Wake Disorders* / etiology
  • Sleep Wake Disorders* / prevention & control