Terminal Restlessness and Delirium at the End of Life

Common Characteristics

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It's not uncommon for a terminally ill loved one to become unusually restless or even agitated, but it is often distressing for family and friends to witness. The depth of such restlessness or agitation varies from patient to patient; in some cases, it can progress to a state known as "terminal restlessness," or "terminal delirium." Here's how to recognize the symptoms and learn how help a loved one who is experiencing them.

What Is Delirium?

Delirium is a complex psychiatric syndrome, also sometimes referred to as "organic brain syndrome," "confusion," "encephalopathy" or "impaired mental status." You may recognize it by noticing a sudden change in your loved one's alertness and behavior. This change can sometimes fluctuate over the course of a day, and it usually gets worse at night.

Some other characteristics of delirium include:

  • Impaired level of consciousness with a reduced awareness of the surrounding environment
  • Impaired short-term memory and attention span
  • Disorientation to time and place
  • Delusions and/or hallucinations (believing and/or seeing things that are not real)
  • Speaking very loudly or softly, rapidly or slowly
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or reversed sleep cycle
  • Abnormal activity. Body movements may increase or decrease, and may be very fast or slow.

If treatment is delayed or proves very difficult, delirium may progress to terminal restlessness.

What Is Terminal Restlessness?

Terminal restlessness is a particularly distressing form of delirium that sometimes occurs in dying patients. It is characterized by anguish (spiritual, emotional, or physical), restlessness, anxiety, agitation, and cognitive failure.

Terminal restlessness is so distressing because it has a direct negative impact on the dying process. We all want death to be a comfortable and peaceful experience, but if a patient is dying with terminal restlessness, his or her death can be anything but.

When a person suffers from a terminal illness, they can become irritable, sullen, frustrated, and angry. These kinds of mood shifts can be intense, and, when the nearing the end, profound mood changes can occur. This can be particularly difficult for caregivers and loved ones to deal with, causing fear and a feeling of helplessness.

Terminal restlessness has the potential to be confused with "nearing death awareness," which is described as a dying person's instinctual knowledge that death is near. It's important for loved ones of dying patients, as well as health care professionals, to understand the phenomenon of nearing death awareness so they can be equipped to support a dying patient's unique needs.

Causes of Delirium and Terminal Restlessness

There are many different causes of delirium and terminal restlessness. Some causes are easily reversed, while others are not.

Some of the most common causes of delirium include:

  • Medications: opioids, anti-seizure drugs, steroids, and anxiolytics are just a few of the medications that can cause delirium. Overuse of medications can cause toxicity and under-use can cause pain and discomfort, which can further worsen delirium.
  • Untreated physical pain or discomfort
  • Dehydration
  • Decreased oxygen in the blood/brain
  • Anemia (decreased red blood cells)
  • Infections and fevers
  • Brain tumors/brain swelling
  • Urinary retention (the inability to void urine could be caused by disease, a kinked urinary catheter, or bladder spasms)
  • Constipation or fecal impaction
  • Fear, anxiety, emotional turmoil
  • Cancer treatments
  • Metabolic disturbances (common at the end of life as vital organs begin to shut down)

What Should One Do About Terminal Restlessness?

If the cause is easily identified, delirium is usually easily treated. However, at the end of life, it may prove difficult to identify one cause, therefore making the treatment of delirium and terminal restlessness challenging.

It's important to keep in mind that properly identifying the cause of delirium and treating it effectively may take several days, but with the support of the hospice team, close friends, and other family members, it is likely that your loved one will settle down and feel less distressed.

Delirium isn't the same in everyone, and it can mimic other illnesses and syndromes, making recognizing and treating it difficult. If you notice that your loved one is acting out of sorts, has new memory loss, or is experiencing changes in his sleeping pattern, contact your health care provider for further assessment.

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Article Sources

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