Limitations of CIWA score
Author: Cynthia Santos, MD (Senior Medical Toxicology Fellow, Emory University School of Medicine) // Edited by: Alex Koyfman, MD (@EMHighAK, EM Attending Physician, UTSW / Parkland Memorial Hospital) and Brit Long, MD (@long_brit)
You are working a busy ED shift and are also managing a handful of boarded patients admitted to your ICU. Nursing resources are especially strained today. One of your intubated patients that you admitted for alcohol withdrawal starts having a seizure. His vitals are T 101F, HR 135, BP 175/100, RR 16, O2 sat 89% on 40% O2.
What are some of the limitations of using the CIWA score?
Although the CIWA score is a widely cited example of symptom-triggered therapy it has several important limitations and can be difficult to properly execute in the emergency department setting.
- Symptom-triggered treatment for alcohol withdrawal using the CIWA score has many benefits including reduced progression to mechanical ventilation requirement, 4-fold decrease in benzodiazepine requirements, shorter duration of treatment, and shorter hospitalization stays by 2 days when compared to fixed-dosing scheduling.(1)
- However, an important clinical limitation of CIWA as a tool to assess alcohol withdrawal is that it does not incorporate vital sign assessment, which can be an important and sometimes the only clue available in recognizing inappropriately treated DT patients.(2)
- The CIWA score also does not address choice of benzodiazepines, frequency of administration, use of adjuvant medications and underlying medical conditions (renal failure, liver failure, respiratory failure, cardiac disease, age, etc.) in treating withdrawal.(2)
- The CIWA score requires patients to be able to respond to questions and follow commands. This can be difficult in patients with language barriers, altered mental status or who are intubated.(2)
- For example “Do you feel sick to your stomach, have you vomited?”; “Do you have any itching, pins-and-needles sensations, burnings, or numbness…?” and “Are you seeing anything that is disturbing you?” are some questions asked.
- Many of the studies that have evaluated CIWA have excluded patients with seizures, which is an important sign of severe withdrawal and should be taken into consideration.(3)
- Moreover, the CIWA score can be especially difficult to execute properly without adequate nursing staff. Many busy EDs are often understaffed and have limited nursing resources. Thorough staff training is required to appropriate use CIWA.(2) Studies have shown that the CIWA score tends to be administered irregularly by nursing staff, often used for patients who are not appropriate for symptom-guided treatment and can have a higher proportion of protocol errors.(4)
- Scoring systems are important for symptom-triggered therapy and provide the ability for comparison analysis in clinical trials. However, many other scoring systems exist. An example is the Richmond Agitation Sedation Scale (RASS), which is observer based.(5) Many hospitals have their own scoring systems as well.
Symptom triggered therapy has been shown to have better outcomes than fixed benzodiazepine scheduling in managing alcohol withdrawal. The CIWA score is a widely cited method of using symptom triggered therapy. However, physicians should not rely on just the CIWA score and other hospital and research protocols exist. The CIWA score has several important limitations including the exclusion of vital signs as an assessment, reliance of the patient’s ability to answer questions and follow commands, and can be time consuming in a busy ED environment.
- Daeppen J, Gache P, Landry U, et al. Symptom-triggered vs fixed-schedule doses of benzodiazepines for alcohol withdrawal. JAMA. 2002;162(10):1117-1121.
- Sankoff J, Taub J, Mintzer D. American College of Medical Quality: Accomplishing much in a short time: use of a rapid improvement event to redesign the assessment and treatment of patients with alcohol withdrawal. Am J Med Qual. 2013; 28(2):95-102.
- Saitz R, Mayo-Smith MF, Roberts MS, Redmond HA, Bernard DR, Calkins DR. Individualized treatment for alcohol withdrawal: a randomized double-blind controlled trial. JAMA. 1994;272:519-523.
- Hecksel KA, Bostwick JM, Jaeger TM, Cha SS. Inappropriate use of symptom-triggered therapy for alcohol withdrawal in the general hospital. Mayo Clin Proc. 2008;83:274-279. 10.
- Sessler CN. The Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale” validity and reliability in adult intensive care unit patients. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2002; 166:1338-1344.