The treatment of intraoperative hypotension with phenylephrine may impair cerebral perfusion through vasoconstriction, which has been linked to postoperative delirium. The hypothesis was that intraoperative administration of phenylephrine, compared to ephedrine, is associated with higher odds of postoperative delirium.


A total of 103,094 hospitalized adults undergoing general anesthesia for noncardiac, non-neurosurgical procedures between 2008 and 2020 at two tertiary academic healthcare networks in Massachusetts were included in this multicenter hospital registry study. The primary exposure was the administration of phenylephrine versus ephedrine during surgery, and the primary outcome was postoperative delirium within 7 days. Multivariable logistic regression analyses adjusted for a priori defined confounding variables including patient demographics, comorbidities, and procedural factors including magnitude of intraoperative hypotension were applied.


Between the two healthcare networks, 78,982 (76.6%) patients received phenylephrine, and 24,112 (23.4%) patients received ephedrine during surgery; 770 patients (0.8%) developed delirium within 7 days. The median (interquartile range) total intraoperative dose of phenylephrine was 1.0 (0.2 to 3.3) mg and 10.0 (10.0 to 20.0) mg for ephedrine. In adjusted analyses, the administration of phenylephrine, compared to ephedrine, was associated with higher odds of developing postoperative delirium within 7 days (adjusted odds ratio, 1.35; 95% CI, 1.06 to 1.71; and adjusted absolute risk difference, 0.2%; 95% CI, 0.1 to 0.3%; P = 0.015). A keyword and manual chart review–based approach in a subset of 45,465 patients further validated these findings (delirium incidence, 3.2%; adjusted odds ratio, 1.88; 95% CI, 1.49 to 2.37; P < 0.001). Fractional polynomial regression analysis further indicated a dose-dependent effect of phenylephrine (adjusted coefficient, 0.08; 95% CI, 0.02 to 0.14; P = 0.013, per each μg/kg increase in the cumulative phenylephrine dose).


The administration of phenylephrine compared to ephedrine during general anesthesia was associated with higher odds of developing postoperative delirium. Based on these data, clinical trials are warranted to determine whether favoring ephedrine over phenylephrine for treatment of intraoperative hypotension can reduce delirium after surgery.

Editor’s Perspective
What We Already Know about This Topic
  • Previous observational studies have found associations between indicators of impaired intraoperative cerebral perfusion with the development of postoperative delirium

  • Although phenylephrine may be effective in increasing systemic blood pressure, its ability to restore cerebral microcirculation and oxygenation remains unclear

What This Article Tells Us That Is New
  • After adjusting for a large number of possible confounding factors, patients in whom phenylephrine was used as the intraoperative vasopressor had an increased incidence of postoperative delirium compared to those in whom ephedrine was used

  • The risk of delirium increased with increasing dose of phenylephrine

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