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We report the effective use of dexmedetomidine in the treatment of a patient with a history of chronic alcohol abuse and an acute traumatic brain injury who developed agitation that was unresolved if from traumatic brain injury, or alcohol withdrawal or the combination of both. Treatment with benzodiazepines failed; lorazepam therapy obscured our ability to do reliable neurological testing to follow his brain injury and nearly resulted in intubation of the patient secondary to respiratory suppression. Upon admission to hospital, the patient was first treated with intermittent, prophylactic doses of lorazepam for potential alcohol withdrawal based upon our institution's standard of care. His neurological examinations including a motor score of 6 (obeying commands) on his Glasgow Coma Scale testing, laboratory studies, and repeat CT head imaging remained stable. For lack of published literature in diagnosing symptoms of patients with a history of both alcohol withdrawal and traumatic brain injury, a diagnosis of agitation secondary to presumed alcohol withdrawal was made when the patient developed acute onset of tachycardia, confusion, and extreme anxiety with tremor and attempts to climb out of bed requiring him to be restrained. Additional lorazepam doses were administered following a hospital-approved protocol for titration of benzodiazepine therapy for alcohol withdrawal. The patient's mental status and respiratory function deteriorated with the frequent lorazepam dosing needed to control his agitation. Dexmedetomidine IV infusion at a rate of 0.5 mcg/kg/h was then administered and was titrated ultimately to 1.5 mcg/kg/h. After 8 days of therapy with dexmedetomidine, the patient was transferred from the ICU to a step-down unit with an intact neurological examination and no evidence of alcohol withdrawal. Airway intubation was avoided during the patient's entire hospitalization. This case report highlights the intricate balance between the side effects of benzodiazepine sedation for treatment of agitation and the difficulties of monitoring the neurological status of non-intubated patients with traumatic brain injury. Given the large numbers of alcohol-dependent patients who suffer a traumatic brain injury and subsequently develop agitation and alcohol withdrawal in hospital, dexmedetomidine offers a novel strategy to facilitate sedation without neurological or respiratory depression. As this case report demonstrates, dexmedetomidine is an emerging treatment option for agitation in patients who require reliable, serial neurological testing to monitor the course of their traumatic brain injury.


Julin F Tang, Po-Liang Chen, Eric J Tang, Todd A May, Shirley I Stiver. Dexmedetomidine controls agitation and facilitates reliable, serial neurological examinations in a non-intubated patient with traumatic brain injury. Neurocritical care. 2011 Aug;15(1):175-81

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PMID: 20198514

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