A mild sedative could greatly reduce the risk of people experiencing delirium after an operation, according to new research.
The study, by scientists at Imperial College London and Peking University First Hospital, suggests sedating patients after they undergo an operation may reduce the risk of post-operative delirium by up to 65 per cent.
The condition may affect up to one in three people who have a major operation, causing confusion and hallucinations — with those over 65 years of age particularly at risk.
The team, who published their study in The Lancet, believe the sedative may help the brain “recover and reset” after surgery.
Post-operative delirium usually strikes within the first two days of a person waking from general anesthetic.
The symptoms range from relatively mild, such as a person not knowing their name or where they are, to more severe, such as aggressive behaviour, believing people are trying to harm them, or even hallucinations.
Professor Daqing Ma, co-lead author of the new study from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, says, “Post-operative delirium is a huge challenge for the medical community — and incredibly distressing for patients and their families. In many cases patients become almost child-like, and do not understand where they are, what is happening, and become very upset. Hospital staff have also been injured by delirious patients becoming aggressive. However we currently have no treatments options available for this condition.”
The causes are unknown, but one theory is that major surgery can trigger inflammation throughout the body, which in some cases can spread to the brain.
The risk of the condition increases with age, and it seems to strike more often when patients undergo major, lengthy operations.
The delirium can last from a few hours to a couple of days, and some research suggests it may be linked to an increased risk of elderly patients later developing dementia.
In the new study, co-led by Professor Dongxin Wang at Peking University First Hospital, researchers assessed 700 patients age 65 or older who were about to undergo major surgery at the Beijing hospital.
Half received a low dose of a type of sedative called dexmedetomidine after the operation, as an infusion directly into a vein in their arm, while half received a placebo salt-water infusion.
The patients received the infusion of sedative or placebo around an hour after surgery, and for the next 16 hours.
This sedative, which is commonly used for medical procedures and in veterinary medicine, leaves a patient relaxed and drowsy, yet conscious. The drug is considered safe as it doesn’t affect breathing.
Both groups received the same general anaesthetic before undergoing their operation. They were then assessed for symptoms of delirium every day for a week after their procedure.
The results revealed that nearly one in four patients in the placebo group — 23 per cent — developed delirium. However only just under one in ten patients — 9 per cent — who received the sedative developed the condition.
Scientists are still unsure how the sedative works, but one theory is it allows the brain to rest and recover immediately after surgery, explains Ma.
“Previous studies have shown that patients who struggle to sleep after their operation — perhaps because they are in pain or on a busy, noisy ward — are at increased risk of delirium.”
He adds that the sedative dexmedetomidine seems to not only trigger sleep, but actually mimics the natural state the brain enters during sleep.
“Although other sedatives induce sleep, they do not trigger the natural ‘sleep state’ the brain requires to rest, reset, and recover.”
Ma say that previous research have suggested the sedative may help prevent delirium, but this is the largest study to show such beneficial effects. The study also confirmed there were no side effects of the sedative.
Further results showed the patients given the sedative had fewer post-operative complications than the placebo group, and were discharged from hospital earlier.
The team will now assess if the sedative has long-term benefits, beyond the seven-day study period.
“There is still much more work to do around post-operative delirium, as we still don’t fully understand what is happening in the brain, and why some patients are more at risk. However these findings suggest this sedative may be a potential method of preventing post-operative delirium in some patients,” says Ma.