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Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2009 Mar;3(1):14-23. doi: 10.1097/SPC.0b013e3283260628.

When cancer symptoms cannot be controlled: the role of palliative sedation.

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Department of Anaesthesiology, Pain and Palliative Medicine, Radboud University, Nijmegen Medical Centre, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.



Palliative sedation, the intentional lowering of consciousness for refractory and unbearable distress, has been much discussed during the last decade. In recent years, much research has been published about this subject that will be discussed in this review. The review concentrates on: a brief overview of the main developments during the last decade, an exploration of current debate regarding ethical dilemmas, the development of clinical guidelines, and the application of palliative sedation.


Main findings are that palliative sedation is mostly described in retrospective studies and that the terminology palliative sedation in now common in the majority of the studies. In addition, life-shortening effects for palliative sedation are scarcely reported, although not absent. A number of guidelines have been developed and published, although systematic implementation needs more attention. Consequently, palliative sedation has become more clearly positioned as a medical treatment, to be distinguished from active life shortening.


Caregivers should apply palliative sedation proportionally, guided by the symptoms of the patient without striving for deep coma and without motives for life shortening. Clinical and multidisciplinary assessment of refractory symptoms is recommended as is patient monitoring during sedation. Future research should concentrate on proportional sedation rather than continuous deep sedation exclusively, preferably in a prospective design.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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