Practical guidelines for the acute emergency sedation of the severely agitated older patient

Intern Med J. 2011 Sep;41(9):651-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1445-5994.2011.02560.x.


The vulnerability of older people to serious underlying medical illness and adverse effects of psychotropics means that the safe and effective treatment of severe agitation can be lifesaving, the primary management goals being to create a safe environment for the patient and others, and to facilitate assessment and treatment. We review the literature on acute sedation and provide practical guidelines for the management of this problem addressing a range of issues, including aetiology, assessment, pharmacological and non-pharmacological strategies, restraint and consent. The assessment of the agitated older patient must include concurrent assessment of the likely aetiology of, the risks posed by, and the risks/benefits of management options for, the agitation. A range of environmental modifications and non-pharmacological strategies might be implemented to maximize the safety of the patient and others. Physical restraints should only be considered after appropriate assessment and trial of alternative management and if the risk of restraint is less than the risk of the behaviour. Limited evidence supports a range of pharmacological options from traditional antipsychotics to atypical antipsychotics and benzodiazepines. It is advised to start low and go slow, using small increments of dose increase. Medical staff are frequently called to sedate agitated older patients in hospital settings, often after hours, with limited access to relevant medical information and history. Safe and effective management necessitates adequate assessment of the aetiology of the agitation, exhausting all non-pharmacological strategies, and resorting to pharmacological and/or physical restraint only when necessary, judiciously and for a short-term period, with frequent review and the obtaining of consent as soon as possible.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Conscious Sedation / methods
  • Conscious Sedation / standards*
  • Emergency Medical Services / methods
  • Emergency Medical Services / standards*
  • Humans
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic / standards*
  • Psychomotor Agitation / diagnosis
  • Psychomotor Agitation / drug therapy*
  • Psychomotor Agitation / etiology
  • Severity of Illness Index