A coma is a state of deep unconsciousness that a person cannot be woken from. A person in a coma cannot react to events in the environment.
Information about your environment is normally passed from the brainstem into the rest of the brain. This feedback allows a person to be aware of and react to the environment. A coma is caused by a breakdown in this system.
Brainstem and Cerebrum
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The system may be interrupted by: Severe head injury—most often a result of car accidents, violence, or falls.
Brain illness such as:
Brain hemorrhage or
Lack of oxygen to the brain which may be due to:
Very high blood pressure
Very low blood pressure or
Severe general illness such as:
Severe bodily infections
Severe acute liver or
kidney failureHigh carbon dioxide levelsCarbon monoxide poisoning
Toxicity from poisons, medication,
drugsAbnormal hormone levels, such as from the thyroid or adrenal glandAbnormal blood chemistries, such as sodium or calciumVery low or very high levels of blood sugarVery low or very high body temperaturesSevere nutrient deficiencyLiver failureKidney failureInherited metabolic diseases
Factors that may increase your chance of a coma include: Severe illness
DiabetesLiver, kidney, or cardiovascular diseaseTendency to have blood clotsExposure to poisonous substances, such as carbon dioxide
Brain injury is more common in men. Age groups that are more likely to experience brain injury include 5 years or younger, 15-24 years old, and 75 years or older. Risk factors for brain injury include: Traveling in a vehicle at a high rate of speed or at nightLack of sleepA previous head injury
Symptoms of a coma include the following:
No response to stimulus, such as:
Spontaneous body movements, such as:
JerkingShakingTremblingEyes opening and closingIrregular breathing
Since the patient cannot speak,
information will need to be gathered from other sources, including friends, family members, and people who witnessed an accident if one occurred. This is important to help with diagnosis. The doctor will also need to know about the person’s medical history and any
alcohol use. It is important to provide honest information in order to help with treatment.
The doctor will test reflexes, listen to breathing, and examine the eyes. A physical exam will also be done including tests of the nervous system.
The patient's bodily fluids will be tested. This can be done with: Blood testsUrine testLumbar puncture
Images may be taken of the patient's bodily structures. This can be done with:
x-raysMRI scanCT scanSPECT or Xenon
The patient's brain activity may be tested. This can be done with: Electroencephalogram (EEG)Evoked potentials
Clinical findings of comatose patients can be rated according to the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS). This scale assesses three different functions: eye opening, motor response, and verbal response. Scores can range from 15 to 3. A lower score indicates less responsiveness. Scores are interpreted as follows: 15-13—mild brain injury12-9—moderate brain injury8 or less—a severe brain injury
A coma is a medical emergency. Any unconscious person should be taken to the emergency room right away.
Doctors will work quickly to determine the cause of the coma. Further treatment will depend on the cause of the coma.
Supportive care may include: Monitoring of vital signsOxygen therapyDelivering fluids directly into the blood through an IVMechanical ventilation
to help support breathing
If a specific cause of the coma is suspected, supportive care may also include: Glucose delivered through IV—in case low blood sugar is causing the comaNaloxone—if a narcotics overdose is suspected
Thiamine (vitamin B1) may be given with glucose if
alcohol use disorder
or malnutrition is suspected
In some cases, surgery may correct the cause of a coma.
If the coma persists after emergency care, ongoing care may be needed. After the person is stabilized, treatment will focus on providing nutrition and preventing infections. The care staff will also work to prevent
To help reduce your chance of a coma:
. Make sure infants and small children are securely fastened in a child safety seat.
Children aged 12 years and under should ride in the back seat of a vehicle.Wear an appropriate helmet while biking, rollerblading, playing contact sports, skiing, snowboarding, and riding a motorcycle.Wear athletic mouth guards while playing sports.
Do not abuse alcohol or
If you have diabetes, see your doctor regularly and take appropriate steps to regulate your blood sugar levels.If you are ill or take medication, see your doctor regularly for check-ups.
Last reviewed November 2016 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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