Head CT is of limited diagnostic value in critically ill patients who remain unresponsive after discontinuation of sedation

Jay S. Balachandran, Mairaj Jaleel, Manu Jain, Niraj Mahajan, Ravi Kalhan, Rajesh Balagani, Helen K. Donnelly, Eugene Greenstein, Gökhan M. Mutlu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Background: Prolonged sedation is common in mechanically ventilated patients and is associated with increased morbidity and mortality. We sought to determine the diagnostic value of head computed tomography (CT) in mechanically ventilated patients who remain unresponsive after discontinuation of sedation. Methods: A retrospective review of adult (age > 18 years of age) patients consecutively admitted to the medical intensive care unit of a tertiary care medical center. Patients requiring mechanical ventilation for management of respiratory failure for longer than 72 hours were included in the study group. A group that did not have difficulty with awakening was included as a control. Results: The median time after sedation was discontinued until a head CT was performed was 2 days (interquartile range 1.375-2 days). Majority (80%) of patients underwent head CT evaluation within the first 48 hours after discontinuation of sedation. Head CT was non-diagnostic in all but one patient who had a small subarachnoid hemorrhage. Twenty-five patients (60%) had a normal head CT. Head CT findings did not alter the management of any of the patients. The control group was similar to the experimental group with respect to demographics, etiology of respiratory failure and type of sedation used. However, while 37% of subjects in the control group had daily interruption of sedation, only 19% in the patient group had daily interruption of sedation (p < 0.05). Conclusion: In patients on mechanical ventilation for at least 72 hours and who remain unresponsive after sedative discontinuation and with a non-focal neurologic examination, head CT is performed early and is of very limited diagnostic utility. Routine use of daily interruption of sedation is used in a minority of patients outside of a clinical trial setting though it may decrease the frequency of unresponsiveness from prolonged sedation and the need for head CT in patients mechanically ventilated for a prolonged period.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3
JournalBMC Anesthesiology
StatePublished - May 7 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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