Causes of Terminal Restlessness and Delirium

Terminal restlessness, also known as terminal agitation, is a particularly distressing form of delirium that sometimes occurs in dying patients. It is characterized by spiritual, emotional, or physical restlessness as well as anxiety, agitation, and cognitive failure.

When a person becomes ill, mood changes become common. Irritability, sullenness, frustration, and even anger rear their ugly heads. When a person suffers from a terminal illness, these kinds of mood shifts can be intense; when she nears the end of her life, those shifts may increase in frequency and significance. This phenomenon can be particularly difficult for caregivers and loved ones to deal with.

Terminal restlessness is so distressing because it has a direct and negative effect on the dying process. We all want death to be a comfortable and peaceful experience but, if a patient is dying with terminal restlessness, her death seems more tortured.

Terminal restlessness has the potential to be confused with "nearing death awareness," which is described as a dying person's instinctive 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 special needs.

Causes of 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 leads to toxicity and under-use amplifies 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 or 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 I Do About Terminal Restlessness?

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

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, you will make it through this difficult time.

Delirium isn't the same for 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.

View Article Sources
  • Kinzbrunner, BM; Weinreb, NJ; Policzer, JS; 20 Common Problems: End of Life Care, McGraw-Hill Publishing, 2002.
  • Ferrell, BR and Coyle, N; Textbook of Palliative Nursing, Oxford University Press, 2006.