Recovery from critical care

Monitoring and treating patients with life-threatening conditions

This page explains what can happen to patients as they recover from critical illness. This includes patients on the intensive care unit (ICU) and the high dependency unit (HDU).


Critical illness may have a prolonged effect on patients, both physically and psychologically. 

Physical effects of critical illness include losing weight and muscle strength. Patients will undergo a rehabilitation programme to build strength and move towards independence. We will continue to help patients with their daily needs whilst encouraging them to do things for themselves. We can also provide nutritional and dietary advice.

Psychological effects include confusion, disorientation and agitation. This can be due to the illness itself or medications used to help patients sleep and keep them free from pain. We will try to minimise confusion by explaining to the patient where he/she is and what is happening. 

Later on in their recovery patients can feel emotional, tearful, frustrated and anxious. They may also suffer disturbing memories or flashbacks from their time in critical care. We will provide advice and psychological support if this is happening. 

Leaving the unit

When a patient no longer needs critical care treatment they will leave ICU (known as being 'discharged'). The patient may then go to an HDU if close monitoring is still needed, or a ward.

HDUs provide a level of care in between that of an ICU and a ward. On an HDU there is one nurse for every two patients. 

Leaving ICU is usually a positive step, however, it can be difficult to adjust to no longer having one-to-one nursing. Ward staff will continue to support the patient in their rehabilitation and a member of the critical care team will check on the patient a few days after discharge from ICU.

Getting home

Most intensive care patients will spend time on a ward before being discharged home. During this time the critical care team is available to provide advice and support,

Getting home represents an important achievement for recovery but it can be frightening and emotional. Sometimes, a patient's recovery can be very slow and this can make them feel tearful and frustrated. 

At home

Once home, the first port of call for any health problems is the GP who will have received a comprehensive summary of treatment undergone. This may include an ongoing rehabilitation plan. Having supportive family and friends around is also a great help to a patient's recovery.

We are aware that life after critical illness can be challenging and it is not always easy to get the help patients and families need. Approximately two or three months after discharge home, patients are invited to our post critical care follow-up clinic.

We have also set up a peer support group where former patients and families can meet each other , share their experiences and help make sense of life after critical illness. Please email for more information.

Family, carers and friends can also visit the ICU steps website to find out more about the physical and emotional effects of a prolonged critical care stay and what life may be like when patients leave critical care.