What are chemical restraints and why are they used in nursing homes?

Chemical restraints are drugs used by nursing home staff to discipline, control, or restrain their residents. By using chemical substances, nursing homes can control resident’s behavior.

Although Congress passed a law in 1987 that included protections for nursing home residents’ rights, we still see the use of chemical restraints decades later. Keep reading to learn more about why chemical restraints are used, what that looks like, and what to do if you think chemical restraints are being given to your loved one in their nursing home.

chemical restraints

Drugs used for convenience, not medical reasons

When you entrust a nursing home with your loved one, you expect them to receive the highest standard of care. This includes giving them medications that treat illnesses or keep them healthy. Chemical restraints are not that. Chemical restraints are drugs used out of convenience, not out of medical necessity.

Some nursing homes are notorious for using drugs to sedate patients who are difficult to control. Essentially, to make these patients “easier to deal with,” nursing home staff give them unneeded medication as a means of keeping them calm and pliable. This is not only unethical, dangerous, and dehumanizing, but it also breaks federal law.

How the government defines “unnecessary drugs”

In order for this practice to officially be breaking the law, the drugs being given to a patient need to be considered “unnecessary drugs.” The government’s definition of unnecessary drugs includes any medications that aren’t being used to treat an illness or protect a patient.

Giving a patient drugs purely to make them easier to manage, or to punish them after they’ve been difficult to manage, is considered highly illegal. It’s also against the law for medications to be used in excessive dosages, for excessive lengths of time, or if they pose a risk of serious negative side effects due to a patient’s other health issues and medications.

Common drugs used as chemical restraints

The reason nursing homes choose overmedication as a means of restraining unruly or difficult patients is because the drugs will do all the work for them. Certain drugs cause drowsiness, disorientation, lethargy, or calmer behavior, which make them a lure for malicious nursing home staff to give to those patients whom they think need to be subdued.

Below are some common drugs used as chemical restraints in nursing homes. If you see that your loved one is taking a drug in one of these categories, discuss it with them and their doctor.

  • Antidepressants: Antidepressants can cause lethargy and tiredness in patients who don’t need them. This can suppress a patient who is prone to emotional or physical outbursts.
  • Antipsychotics: These drugs are designed for use in patients with psychotic symptoms, but when used in patients who don’t medically need them, they can cause disorientation.
  • Mood stabilizers: Mood stabilizers exist to treat patients with major mood disorders such as bipolar disorder, but are sometimes used by nursing home staff to stabilize patients’ moods they deem to be undesirable.
  • Anxiolytics: These are commonly known as anti-anxiety medications, and are known for their sedative effect. They can make patients calmer or spaced out.
  • Sedative-hypnotics: These drugs have the most obvious and direct use: to sedate patients. Sedative-hypnotics can put patients to sleep and make them easily controllable.

Life-threatening risks of chemical restraints

Chemical restraints are not only inhumane, but can also be life-threatening. Giving a patient a drug they do not medically need can cause serious adverse health effects. Below are some of the health risks for patients who are subjected to chemical restraints.

  • Adverse drug effects: Some drugs have side effects that can be life threatening, even in patients who legitimately need the drug. Subjecting patients to the unnecessary risk of harmful side effects is dangerous and negligent.
  • Increased dependence and functional decline: Some of the drugs mentioned above are habit forming and have a high rate of abuse. Overmedicating patients with these drugs can cause chemical dependence as well as additional behavioral and health risks. Giving seniors these medications can also cause a decline in healthy functioning.
  • Heightened risk of accidents and falls: Sedated or disorientated patients are more likely to fall or have an accident and risk serious injury.
  • Loss of memory: Continued use of psychiatric drugs for sedative purposes can cause patients to have memory problems.
  • Loss of mobility and strength: Chemical dependence on controlled substances can negatively affect motor skills and endurance.
  • Low blood pressure or orthostatic hypotension: Some drugs come with a risk of lowering blood pressure, which can be life threatening. Orthostatic hypotension is low blood pressure that occurs when standing or sitting, changing based on posture, which is another risk that comes with overmedication.
  • Muscle disorders: Continued use of certain drugs can cause muscle disorders and spasms.
  • Withdrawal and depression: Forcing a patient to regularly take drugs that they don’t need can cause chemical dependence. Then, when the drugs aren’t administered, the patient experiences physical withdrawal symptoms, as well as emotional withdrawal symptoms such as depression.

Suspect your loved one is being given unnecessary drugs at their nursing home? We can help.

If you suspect your loved one is being overmedicated or given unnecessary drugs at their nursing home, don’t let the question slip by without knowing the answer. We can help. We’ll investigate the treatment your loved one is receiving and uncover any potential abuse. Call Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates at (800) 985-1819 for a free consultation with a Chicago nursing home abuse lawyer.