Adult Emergence Agitation: A Veteran-Focused Narrative Review

Brian Tolly, Amr Waly, Garrett Peterson, Christopher R. Erbes, Richard C. Prielipp, Ioanna Apostolidou

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Emergence agitation (EA) is a self-limited state of psychomotor excitement during awakening from general anesthesia. EA is confined to the emergence period as consciousness is restored, which sharply distinguishes it from other postoperative delirium states. Sporadic episodes of EA may become violent with the potential for harm to both patients and caregivers, but the long-term consequences of such events are not fully understood. Current literature on EA in adults is limited to small-scale studies with inconsistent nomenclature, variable time periods that define emergence, a host of different surgical populations, and conflicting diagnostic criteria. Therefore, true incidence rates and risk factors are unknown. In adult noncardiac surgery, the incidence of EA is approximately 19%. Limited data suggest that young adults undergoing otolaryngology operations with volatile anesthetic maintenance may be at the highest risk for EA. Currently suggested EA mechanisms are theoretical but might reflect underblunted sympathetic activation in response to various internal (eg, flashbacks or anxiety) or external (eg, surgical pain) stimuli as consciousness returns. Supplemental dexmedetomidine and ketamine may be utilized for EA prevention. Compared to the civilian population, military veterans may be more vulnerable to EA due to high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) manifesting as violent flashbacks; however, confirmatory data are limited. Nonetheless, expert military medical providers suggest that use of patient-centered rapport tactics, PTSD trigger identification and avoidance, and grounding measures may alleviate hyperactive emergence phenomena. Future research is needed to better characterize EA in veterans and validate prophylactic measures to optimize care for these patients. This narrative review provides readers with an important framework to distinguish EA from delirium. Furthermore, we summarize current knowledge of EA risk factors, mechanisms, and adult management strategies and specifically revisit them in the context of veteran perioperative health. The anesthesiology care team is ideally positioned to further explore EA and develop effective prevention and treatment protocols.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)353-364
Number of pages12
JournalAnesthesia and analgesia
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 International Anesthesia Research Society.

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  • Journal Article
  • Review
  • Webcast


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