Premedication

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Premedication is the administration of medication before anaesthesia. Premedication is used to prepare the patient for anaesthesia and to help provide optimal conditions for surgery. This includes:[1]

  • Reduction of anxiety and pain.
  • Promotion of amnesia.
  • Reduction of secretions.
  • Reduction of volume and pH of gastric contents (to avoid Mendelson's syndrome).
  • Reduction of postoperative nausea and vomiting.
  • Enhancing the hypnotic effects of general anaesthesia.
  • Reduction of vagal reflexes to intubation.
  • Specific indications - eg, prevention of infective endocarditis.

Premedication is traditionally given intramuscularly but the oral route is preferred for children and those with bleeding disorders. Premedication is usually given 1-3 hours pre-operatively. Topical anaesthetic creams (eg, EMLA®) are often prescribed for children before cannulation.

The practice of premedication has changed over a period of a few decades. The use of strongly sedative drugs (eg, morphine and hyoscine) to aid smooth induction and reduce salivation has been abandoned with the advent of modern intravenous and inhalational anaesthetic agents, which have far fewer side-effects and a faster onset of action.[2] Other factors that have reduced the use of a sedative premedication include:[2]

  • Increasing use of day-case surgery.
  • Same-day admissions - patients often do not find a bed until just before surgery.
  • Changes to the surgical list, making the timing of drug delivery difficult.

The choice of drug(s) used for premedication depends on the procedure, patient and anaesthetic technique. Some patients prefer not to have premedication and potential benefits may be outweighed by potential problems (except for specific indications), especially with day-case surgery. A Cochrane review found no evidence of a difference in time to discharge from hospital following adult day surgery in patients who received anxiolytic premedication.[3] 

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  • Careful discussion of the patient's concerns is essential, including at the pre-operative assessment.
  • Benzodiazepines are ideal agents to reduce anxiety. They provide anterograde amnesia and light sedation. If given orally 1-2 hours before surgery they have only a small effect on cardiorespiratory function but large doses can interfere with the speed and quality of recovery. In day-care cases, short-acting benzodiazepines (eg, temazepam) are often preferred.
  • Relieving anxiety and sedation may also be achieved by morphine, pethidine and fentanyl citrate.[4]
  • In children, oral antihistamines may be used for sedation.
  • Especially useful in the young or those having repeated general anaesthetics. May allow a lighter depth of anaesthesia by reducing risk of awareness during surgery.
  • The most effective agents are lorazepam and midazolam.

Opioids, paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs reduce the required dose of anaesthetic agent and improve patient comfort in the immediate postoperative period.

  • Caution must be taken when considering the use of cyclo-oxygenase-2 (COX2) inhibitors, because of their association with increased risk of myocardial infarction and stroke.[2]
  • Opioids are the drugs of choice in the presence of acute pain. In the absence of pain, some people may experience intense dysphoria.
  • Opioids also cause variable sedation and cardiorespiratory depression. All opioids cause nausea and vomiting and this may outweigh any beneficial effects. Opioids may also precipitate bronchospasm or anaphylaxis.

Response to surgery often includes vagally mediated bradycardia. Anti-sialogogues (eg, glycopyrrolate intramuscularly or intravenously) are rarely needed but may be indicated for awake fibre-optic intubation or before ketamine anaesthesia.[2]

  • Hyoscine has strong sedative, amnesic and anti-salivation properties. It is a moderately effective antiemetic and potentiates opioids. Intramuscular atropine or hyoscine is therefore often prescribed together with an opioid.
  • However, anti-sialogogues cause unpleasant dry mouth.
  • Hyoscine is the most potent agent available, with the added advantage of amnesia and sedation. However, it can cause significant perioperative confusion in elderly patients.
  • Are used either to reduce the emetic effects of anaesthetic agents (antihistamines, butyrophenones, hyoscine) or to enhance gastric emptying (metoclopramide).
  • Those with a risk of regurgitation of gastric contents or undergoing procedures with a high incidence of nausea and vomiting (eg, laparoscopy) should receive agents to reduce gastric acidity.
  • Can use H2-receptor antagonist or proton pump inhibitors several hours pre-operatively and oral sodium citrate 15-30 minutes before induction.

Further reading & references

  1. Oxford Textbook of Surgery 4th Edition 2004
  2. Steeds C, Orme R; Premedication. Anaesthesia and intensive care medicine; Volume 7, Issue 11, Pages 393-396 (November 2006).
  3. Walker KJ, Smith AF; Premedication for anxiety in adult day surgery. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Oct 7;(4):CD002192. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD002192.pub2.
  4. Howell TK, Smith S, Rushman SC, et al; A comparison of oral transmucosal fentanyl and oral midazolam for premedication in children.; Anaesthesia. 2002 Aug;57(8):798-805.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
575 (v4)
Last Checked:
20/08/2014
Next Review:
19/08/2019

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