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The Controversy over “Chemical Restraint” in Acute Care Psychiatry


Journal of Psychiatric Practice®: January 2003 - Volume 9 - Issue 1 - p 59-70

In many healthcare settings, medications are considered a less invasive alternative to the use of physical restraint for agitated patients experiencing a behavioral crisis, a practice that is often referred to as “chemical restraint.” However, recent federal regulations appear to equate chemical and physical restraint and to characterize both as extraordinary practices that should not be undertaken lightly. Although many clinicians consider the term “chemical restraint” pejorative, since it does not reflect the possibility that forced medication may be clinically necessary and have a beneficial effect, the term is embedded in recent regulatory language. The author first reviews the controversy over the concept of chemical restraint as it has developed in the mental health literature and regulatory policy. As yet there is no consensus among clinicians or policy makers whether such use of medications is a form of coercion or a form of patient-focused intensive care. The author then discusses precipitants of emergency care and clinical factors and situations that may lead to the use of medications in a way that might be considered chemical restraint. Such factors include clinical and demographic characteristics of patients, institutional characteristics, and staff perception and attitudes. In the final section of the article, the author reviews the recommendations concerning the emergency use of medications given in the Expert Consensus Guidelines on the Treatment of Behavioral Emergencies and discusses treatment developments that have occurred since the time of the survey on which those guidelines were based.

CURRIER: University of Rochester School of Medicine.

Please send correspondence and reprint requests to: Glenn W. Currier, MD, MPH, University of Rochester Medical Center, 601 Elmwood Ave, Rochester, NY 14642.

Copyright © 2003 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.