Alpha-2 agonists for sedation of mechanically ventilated adults in intensive care units: a systematic review

Moira Cruickshank, Lorna Henderson, Graeme MacLennan, Cynthia Fraser, Marion Campbell, Bronagh Blackwood, Anthony Gordon, Miriam Brazzelli

Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature review

23 Citations (Scopus)
11 Downloads (Pure)


BACKGROUND: Care of critically ill patients in intensive care units (ICUs) often requires potentially invasive or uncomfortable procedures, such as mechanical ventilation (MV). Sedation can alleviate pain and discomfort, provide protection from stressful or harmful events, prevent anxiety and promote sleep. Various sedative agents are available for use in ICUs. In the UK, the most commonly used sedatives are propofol (Diprivan(®), AstraZeneca), benzodiazepines [e.g. midazolam (Hypnovel(®), Roche) and lorazepam (Ativan(®), Pfizer)] and alpha-2 adrenergic receptor agonists [e.g. dexmedetomidine (Dexdor(®), Orion Corporation) and clonidine (Catapres(®), Boehringer Ingelheim)]. Sedative agents vary in onset/duration of effects and in their side effects. The pattern of sedation of alpha-2 agonists is quite different from that of other sedatives in that patients can be aroused readily and their cognitive performance on psychometric tests is usually preserved. Moreover, respiratory depression is less frequent after alpha-2 agonists than after other sedative agents.

OBJECTIVES: To conduct a systematic review to evaluate the comparative effects of alpha-2 agonists (dexmedetomidine and clonidine) and propofol or benzodiazepines (midazolam and lorazepam) in mechanically ventilated adults admitted to ICUs.

DATA SOURCES: We searched major electronic databases (e.g. MEDLINE without revisions, MEDLINE In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations, EMBASE and Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials) from 1999 to 2014.

METHODS: Evidence was considered from randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing dexmedetomidine with clonidine or dexmedetomidine or clonidine with propofol or benzodiazepines such as midazolam, lorazepam and diazepam (Diazemuls(®), Actavis UK Limited). Primary outcomes included mortality, duration of MV, length of ICU stay and adverse events. One reviewer extracted data and assessed the risk of bias of included trials. A second reviewer cross-checked all the data extracted. Random-effects meta-analyses were used for data synthesis.

RESULTS: Eighteen RCTs (2489 adult patients) were included. One trial at unclear risk of bias compared dexmedetomidine with clonidine and found that target sedation was achieved in a higher number of patients treated with dexmedetomidine with lesser need for additional sedation. The remaining 17 trials compared dexmedetomidine with propofol or benzodiazepines (midazolam or lorazepam). Trials varied considerably with regard to clinical population, type of comparators, dose of sedative agents, outcome measures and length of follow-up. Overall, risk of bias was generally high or unclear. In particular, few trials blinded outcome assessors. Compared with propofol or benzodiazepines (midazolam or lorazepam), dexmedetomidine had no significant effects on mortality [risk ratio (RR) 1.03, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.85 to 1.24, I (2) = 0%; p = 0.78]. Length of ICU stay (mean difference -1.26 days, 95% CI -1.96 to -0.55 days, I (2) = 31%; p = 0.0004) and time to extubation (mean difference -1.85 days, 95% CI -2.61 to -1.09 days, I (2) = 0%; p < 0.00001) were significantly shorter among patients who received dexmedetomidine. No difference in time to target sedation range was observed between sedative interventions (I (2) = 0%; p = 0.14). Dexmedetomidine was associated with a higher risk of bradycardia (RR 1.88, 95% CI 1.28 to 2.77, I (2) = 46%; p = 0.001).

LIMITATIONS: Trials varied considerably with regard to participants, type of comparators, dose of sedative agents, outcome measures and length of follow-up. Overall, risk of bias was generally high or unclear. In particular, few trials blinded assessors.

CONCLUSIONS: Evidence on the use of clonidine in ICUs is very limited. Dexmedetomidine may be effective in reducing ICU length of stay and time to extubation in critically ill ICU patients. Risk of bradycardia but not of overall mortality is higher among patients treated with dexmedetomidine. Well-designed RCTs are needed to assess the use of clonidine in ICUs and identify subgroups of patients that are more likely to benefit from the use of dexmedetomidine.

STUDY REGISTRATION: This study is registered as PROSPERO CRD42014014101.

FUNDING: The National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme. The Health Services Research Unit is core funded by the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government Health and Social Care Directorates.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)0-120
Number of pages142
JournalHealth Technology Assessment
Issue number25
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


Cite this