ICU Delirium


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As the survival of critically ill patients improves, ICU delirium has become a growing public health issue. Delirium is defined as a rapid change in consciousness (hours to days) characterized by reduced environmental awareness, decreased attention and altered cognition. These clinical features can manifest themselves as memory deficits, disorientation, hallucinations, fluctuating levels of alertness, and motor abnormalities.[1]

According to Ely et al[2] as much as 83% of ICU patients on mechanical ventilation develop delirium. This figure is significant as ICU delirium is associated with negative patient and healthcare outcomes. These outcomes include:

  • increased time on mechanical ventilation,[3]
  • increased likelihood of being discharged to a long-term care facility[4]
  • longer ICU and hospital length of stay, [5][6]
  • elevated health care costs,[7]
  • increased cognitive dysfunction,[3]
  • and increased risk of death.[8]

Delirium Subtypes

Delirium can be divided into 3 subtypes: hyperactive, hypoactive, and mixed. The table[9] below matches each subtype with common clinical manifestations.

Subtype Clinical Manifestations
Hyperactive Agitation, restlessness, emotional lability, hallucinations
Hypoactive Lethargy, decreased responsiveness, slowed motor skills
Mixed Fluctuation between hyper- and hypoactive symptoms

In critically ill patients, mixed delirium is the most common subtype (54.9%). Hypoactive delirium is second (43.5%), followed by a small percentage of patients who display purely hyperactive symptoms (1.6%).[10] ICU patients aged 65 and older are particularly susceptible to hypoactive delirium.[10]

Causes and Risk Factors

Delirium develops as a result of multiple causes and risk factors. Old age, dementia, depression, smoking, and alcohol use are among the personal factors that increase patient susceptibility.[11][12] In addition, another 20+ risk factors related to medical status have been identified by the literature.[13] Below is a common mnemonic used to help clinicians identify causes related to illness and treatment:

Illness and Treatment-Related Causes of Delirium
D Drugs
E Eyes, ears, and other sensory deficits
L Low O2 states (e.g. heart attack, stroke, and pulmonary embolism)
I Infection
R Retention (of urine or stool)
I Ictal state
U Underhydraton/undernutrition
M Metabolic causes (DM, Post-operative state, sodium abnormalities)

[Adapted from: Saint Louis University Geriatrics Evaluation Mnemonics Screening Tools (SLU GEMS). Developed or compiled by: Faculty from Saint Louis University Geriatrics Division and St. Louis Veterans Affairs GRECC.]

In hospitals, other common risk factors include the absence of daylight, lack of visitors, sleep deprivation, immobility, and hospital lines.[11]


The pathophysiology of delirium is not well understood. Theories related to its development and progression cite anatomical changes in the brain and neurotransmitter imbalances (ex. abnormal levels of serotonin, decreased acetylcholine, excess dopamine) as possible physiologic mechanisms.[14]


There are no imaging or laboratory tests to diagnose delirium. Delirium is a diagnosis of exclusion that requires careful clinical testing and observation.

Assessment and Monitoring

ICU Pain, Agitation, and Delirium (PAD)[15] guidelines recommend two tests for the assessment of delirium in adult ICU patients:

  1. The Intensive Care Delirium Screening Checklist (ICDSC)
  2. The Confusion Assessment Method for the ICU (CAM-ICU)

The following video demonstrates how to perform the CAM-ICU.

Prevention and Treatment

Delirium prevention should be multicomponent intervention tailored to patient needs.[16] The ABCDEF bundle provides a framework to screen and prevent delirium in ICU patients.[17] The concepts corresponding to each letter of the mnemonic are as follows:

Evidenced-Based Prevention and Treatment Strategies for ICU Delirium
A Assess, prevent and manage pain
B Both Spontaneous Awakening Trials (SAT) and Spontaneous Breathing Trials (SBT)
C Choice of analgesia and sedation
D Delirium: assess, prevent and manage
E Early mobility and exercise
F Family engagement and empowerment

In addition to the aforementioned strategies, patient management should include measures to prevent infection, dehydration, constipation, and hypoxia.[16] If possible, movement of patients within and between rooms or wards should be avoided. Other simple, yet vital preventative measures include frequent patient reorientation,[14][16] use of patients' customary vision and hearing aids,[14][16] and promotion of good sleep hygiene.[11][16]

If prevention is unsuccessful, treatment of delirium should focus on identifying and managing the underlying causes. The care team should also ensure effective communication and reorientation, and provide reassurance for people diagnosed with delirium. [16] If a person with delirium is distressed or considered a risk to themselves or others, and verbal and non-verbal de-escalation techniques are ineffective or not appropriate, short-term haloperidol, a medication often prescribed for acute psychosis, should be considered, starting at the lowest clinically appropriate dose. [15]

Implications for Physical Therapy Practice

Physical therapists play an important role in preventing and managing ICU delirium. Perhaps the most important measure is engaging patients in early mobilization in conjunction with nurses, occupational therapists, and physicians.

Early mobilization in the ICU has been shown to reduce the number of days on mechanical ventilation,[18][19] decrease ICU and hospital length of stay[20] and is the only intervention to date proven to decrease the number of days of delirium[19]. Family training, patient reorientation, delirium assessment, use of appropriate vision and hearing aids, and pain management can readily be integrated into therapy sessions. The CAM-ICU is a quick and easy tool that allows physical therapists to assess and monitor the course of a patient's delirium over time.

Differential Diagnosis

The multifactorial nature of delirium can make it easy to mistake for other brain dysfunctions. Below is a non-exhaustive list of conditions that should be considered in the differential diagnosis of ICU delirium:

[Sources: American Family Physician- Delirium, BMJ Best Practice- Assessment of Delirium]

Further Reading

For up to date research and developments on the assessment, prevention, and management of ICU delirium visit the ICU Delirium and Cognitive Impairment Study Group.


  1. American Psychiatric A. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013
  2. Ely EW, Inouye SK, Bernard GR, Gordon S, Francis J, May L, et al. Delirium in mechanically ventilated patients: validity and reliability of the confusion assessment method for the intensive care unit (CAM-ICU). JAMA. 2001; 286(21): 2703-10
  3. 3.0 3.1 Salluh J, Wang H, Schneider EB, Nagaraja N, Yenokyan G, Damluji A, et al. Outcome of delirium in critically ill patients: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2015; 350: h2538
  4. Young J, Murthy L, Westby M, Akunne A, O’Mahony R. Diagnosis, prevention, and management of delirium: summary of NICE guidance. Bmj. 2010;341:c3704.
  5. Ely EW, Gautam S, Margolin R, Francis J, May L, Speroff T, et al. The impact of delirium in the Intensive care unit on hospital length of stay. Intensive Care Med. 2001; 27:1892-1900
  6. Thomason JW, Shintani A, Peterson JF, Pun BT, Jackson JC, Ely EW. Intensive care unit delirium is an independent predictor of longer hospital stay: a prospective analysis of 261 non-ventilated patients. Crit Care 2005; 9(4): R375–R381
  7. Milbrandt EB, Deppen S, Harrison PL, Shintani AK, Speroff T, Stiles RA, et al. Costs Associated with Delirium in Mechanically Ventilated Patients. Crit. Care Med. 2004; 32 (4):955-962
  8. Ely EW, Shintani A., Truman B, Speroff T, Gordon SM, Harrell FE, et al. Delirium as a predictor of mortality in mechanically ventilated patients in the intensive care unit. JAMA 2004; 291(14): 1753-62
  9. Meagher D. Motor subtypes of delirium: past, present, and future. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2009;21(1):59-73
  10. 10.0 10.1 Peterson J, Pun BT, Dittus RS, Thomason JW, Jackson JC, Shintani AK, et al. Delirium and its motoric subtypes: a study of 614 critically ill patients. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2006; 54(3):479-84
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Brummel N, Girard T. Preventing delirium in the intensive care unit. Crit Care Clin. 2013; 29(1): 51–65
  12. McNicoll L, Pisani MA, Zhang Y, Ely EW, Siegel MD, Inouye SK. Delirium in the intensive care unit: occurrence and clinical course in older patients. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2003; 51:591-598
  13. Cavallazzi R, Saad M, Marik PE. Delirium in the ICU: an overview. Ann Intensive Care. 2012; 2: 49
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 ICU Delirium and Cognitive Impairment Study Group. For Medical Professionals-- ABCDEF's of prevention and safety. Available from: (Accessed 8 March 2018).
  15. 15.0 15.1 Barr J, Fraser GL, Puntillo K, Ely EW, Gélinas C, Dasta JF, et al.; American College of Critical Care Medicine. Clinical practice guidelines for the management of pain, agitation, and delirium in adult patients in the intensive care unit. Crit Care Med. 2013; 41(1):263-306
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Delirium: prevention, diagnosis and management (2019). Available from: (Accessed 8 March 2020)
  17. ICU liberation. ABCDEF Bundle. Available from: (Accessed 28 January 2019).
  18. Schweickert WD, Pohlman MC, Pohlman AS, Nigos C, Pawlik AJ, Esbrook CL, et al. Early physical and occupational therapy in mechanically ventilated, critically ill patients: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2009; 373(9678):1874-82
  19. 19.0 19.1 Needham DM, Chandolu S, Zanni J. Interruption of sedation for early rehabilitation improves outcomes in ventilated, critically ill adults. Aust J Physiother. 2009; 55(3):210
  20. Morris PE, Goad A, Thompson C, Taylor K, Harry B, Passmore L, et al. Early intensive care unit mobility therapy in the treatment of acute respiratory failure. Crit Care Med. 2008;36(8):2238-43