Antipsychotic medication is effective for people who are psychotic—period. It’s been used for other conditions, such as the behavioral symptoms of dementia, and it turned out not to work. It’s been used for delirium, a type of confusion that often arises in older people or people nearing the end of life, especially in the hospital, and many doctors swear it’s the only medication that helps this distressing and dangerous disorder. But a new study from Australia suggests that antipsychotic medication doesn’t work for delirium either.
The specific situation the Australian doctors looked at was delirium in the setting of patients with advanced illness, either patients on an inpatient palliative care service or patients enrolled in a hospice facility. Out of well over 1000 patients with delirium, they were able to identify 247 who were both eligible and willing to enter the study. This group, with a mean age of 75, were randomized to risperidone (a commonly used antipsychotic), haloperidol (another commonly used antipsychotic), or placebo. Patients were also given unspecified non-medicinal treatment, presumably things like a sitter (someone to stay with them) or relaxation techniques such as massage. They were also given subcutaneous midazolam, a very short acting anti-anxiety medication under the skin, for extreme agitation. The results? Patients receiving either risperidone or haloperidol had more severe symptoms of delirium than those treated with placebo. They also, not surprisingly, had more Parkinsonian symptoms, the main side effect of these antipsychotic medications, and were more likely to die.
This is a disturbing result. Not only did antipsychotics fail to help, but they also seemed to make matters worse. Now maybe there’s something different about Australians, or maybe the specific environment they were in—a palliative care service or hospice, though neither is clearly described—makes generalization to the American general hospital impossible. Or maybe people with delirium and advanced illness are somehow different from people with delirium who don’t have an advanced illness. And conceivably, other antipsychotics such as quetiapine or olanzapine are different. More likely, antipsychotics are simply a bad choice in the treatment of delirium.
Antipsychotic medications are remarkable medications—for the treatment of psychosis in psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But maybe we should stop using them for anything other than these indications.