What is a Sedation Scale?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2019
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A sedation scale is a metric used for assessing the level of sedation in patients. Using a standardized scale allows care providers to set targets, as well as recording information about patients as accurately as possible in patient charts. A number of different scales for discussing sedation in different settings have been developed, including the Ramsay Sedation Scale and the Richmond Agitation Sedation Scale. Different facilities may prefer particular scales and will train their employees in the uniform application of the metric to their patients.

For medical procedures, sedation may be needed to facilitate the procedure, and a target sedation level is set when planning the procedure. For highly invasive procedures, general anesthesia is needed because the patient needs to be rendered completely insensate to pain, as well as unconscious. For more minor procedures like dental surgery on people who are nervous, only light sedation to keep the patient calm is necessary.

Sedation is also a topic of interest in intensive care and nursing facilities. Patients typically need to be kept under sedation while they are on ventilators, because fully aware patients may extubate themselves by pulling at the tubing and can experience distress. Patients can also be sedated as part of a pain management plan, keeping the patient less aware of pain and the surroundings for increased comfort.


Several qualities can be included in a sedation scale. The patient's level of awareness is one, as the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness is a useful marker that is easy to assess by seeing if a patient responds. Ability to cooperate with commands or answer questions can be a component of awareness or a separate measure, as can agitation and combativeness. Cardiovascular function is another concern, as patients who are heavily sedated may need cardiovascular support. Airway integrity is another issue; light sedation usually allows patients to breathe on their own and causes few airway concerns, while heavy sedation may require artificial ventilation and respiratory support.

A sedation scale may run from one to four, one to six, or even one to 10. Usually, the lower numbers indicate higher levels of awareness and activity, while higher numbers are used for more heavily sedated states. A basic scale might divide patients into light, moderate, heavy, and complete sedation categories. For each category, a checklist of qualities can be used to exclude or include the patient in that category; for example, in light sedation, a patient is awake, so if a patient is not responsive, the patient would automatically be excluded from that category.


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