MONDAY, May 7, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Giving earplugs to patients in the intensive care unit can improve their sleep, reduce their confusion and delay the onset of delirium, according to a new study.
It is believed that sensory overload can lead to confusion and delirium in ICU patients, and research has shown that ICU patients' sleep is severely fragmented.
There is steady noise in the ICU from equipment and people coming and going. But patients say it is not the overall level of noise that disturbs them, but the interruptions caused by phones ringing and people talking.
In the new study, researchers from the University of Antwerp in Belgium investigated the use of earplugs to reduce the amount of noise experienced by ICU patients as they slept. They found that starting to use earplugs within the first 24 hours after admission to the ICU decreased patients' risk for delirium or confusion by more than 50 percent.
The study appears in the May issue of the journal Critical Care.
"The greatest improvement was observed in the risk of confusion, and seems to be strongest within the first 48 hours of admittance to the ICU," study leader Bart van Rompaey said in a journal news release. "Delirium is a multifactorial process and, in our study, was also influenced by age, smoking and severity of disease."
"Nevertheless, the beneficial effect of earplugs in the ICU -- especially in the first few days -- clearly demonstrates the advantage of using them," said Rompaey, senior researcher and program manager in the department of nursing science at the university. "Earplugs are a cheap and easy-to-use means of improving a patient's sleep and preventing confusion."
If the patients using earplugs did develop confusion and delirium, it was later than those who didn't use earplugs, and more of the patients who used earplugs reported a better night's sleep.
The American Thoracic Society has more about critical care.