A review by Shi et al. (2012) verifies that delirium develops in almost one-third of stroke patients, and that the presence of delirium is associated with poorer outcomes.
The researchers looked at 10 different studies, which included more than 2,000 patients who had suffered an ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke. They examined four different outcome parameters: length of stay, care required following discharge, inpatient death rates and survival rates one year after the stroke had occurred. The researchers made some startling discoveries, including the following:
Although delirium can occur at any time after a stroke, and may be part of the presentation of the stroke, often delirium is caused by medications, infection, heart failure or metabolic abnormalities. The researchers stress that it is important to determine the cause of delirium in order to improve patient outcomes.
The study researchers also point out that individuals who experience delirium tend to be older, suffer larger strokes affecting larger portions of the brain, and also have more co-morbidities; factors that may explain the poorer outcomes seen in this meta-analysis. Identifying delirium earlier and managing it appropriately when it does occur could improve patients’ quality of life and help them to maintain their independence for longer.
Delirium can be defined as ‘severe and rapid changes in brain function that may occur as a result of mental or physical illness’. It is generally reversible and temporary.
As mentioned above, medications, infection, heart failure and metabolic disorders can cause delirium. Other causes include withdrawal from drugs or alcohol (or drug abuse), surgery, toxins or poisons, and conditions that cause the brain to be deprived of oxygen (stroke is a common cause of oxygen deprivation).
Delirium manifests as a drastic change in personality, behaviour, speech, memory, mood and/or movement, including:
Treatment must be focused on determining the cause of the delirium and reversing it. The patient’s environment should be soothing, quiet, comfortable, safe and non-threatening. Medications should be reviewed, and medications that may worsen confusion should be discontinued. Finding and treating the cause is paramount and may require an active and all-inclusive search for the cause of the delirium.
Patients may require medications such as dopamine blockers, sedatives, antidepressants or thiamine to control and improve symptoms. In addition, frequent reorientation and behavioural modification may be of benefit.
Fortunately, delirium usually only lasts for about a week, although it may be some time before mental function completely returns to normal. Most of the time, patients will recover completely. In some cases, delirium will progress or fail to resolve; these patients may require care for the rest of their lives.
Delirium is a common occurrence, particularly in stroke patients. Finding and reversing the cause is the most important step in treatment. While the patient is in a delirious state, they must be kept calm and should be provided with a soothing environment. Predicting which patients are at high risk of delirium will allow caregivers to quickly identify and treat this potentially devastating complication.