Nonpharmacological interventions for agitation in the adult intensive care unit: A systematic review

Anne Mette N. Adams, Diane Chamberlain, Mette Grønkjær, Charlotte Brun Thorup, Tiffany Conroy

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
8 Downloads (Pure)


Person-centred nonpharmacological strategies should be used whenever possible to reduce agitation in the intensive care unit due to issues related to an overreliance on physical restraints and psychoactive drugs. However, the effect of nonpharmacological interventions to reduce agitation is unclear.

The objectives of this study were to systematically review studies that evaluate the effectiveness of nonpharmacological interventions designed to prevent and minimise or manage patient agitation in the adult intensive care unit.

This systematic review was conducted following the Joanna Briggs Institute's Systematic Review of Effectiveness method and a priori PROSPERO protocol. Quantitative studies were identified from seven databases, including MEDLINE, EmCare, CINAHL, Web of Science, PsycINFO, Scopus, and Cochrane Library. In addition, grey literature from several repositories and trial registers was searched. The primary outcome of interest was the effect on prevention, minimisation, and management of agitation. The quality of the evidence was assessed using the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE).

Eleven studies were included (n = 882). Meta-analyses of two studies demonstrated significantly lower levels of agitation (measured with the Richmond Agitation Sedation Scale) in the group receiving a multicomponent nonpharmacological intervention than in those receiving usual care. Individual studies showed a significant effect of nature-based sounds, music, foot reflexology, healing touch, and aromatherapy. The type of the endotracheal suction system did not affect levels of agitation. Overall, the certainty of the findings was rated very low. Harms and adverse effects were not reported in any studies.

Nonpharmacological interventions have the potential to reduce levels of agitation in the intensive care unit. However, inconsistencies in reporting, low quality of methodological designs, and small sample sizes impact the certainty of the results. Future trials must include larger sample sizes, use rigorous methods to improve knowledge in this field, and consider a range of other outcomes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)385-400
Number of pages16
JournalAustralian Critical Care
Issue number3
Early online date1 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - May 2023


  • Critical care
  • Delirium
  • Intensive care unit
  • Nonpharmacological interventions
  • Nursing
  • Psychomotor agitation
  • Systematic review


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