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.

  • Causes

    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 tumor

      • Brain hemorrhage or
      • Brain infection

    • Lack of oxygen to the brain which may be due to:

      • Very high blood pressure

      • Very low blood pressure or
      • Cardiac arrest

      • Severe

    • Severe general illness such as:

      • Severe bodily infections

      • Severe acute liver or
        kidney failure
      • High carbon dioxide levels
      • Carbon monoxide poisoning

      • Toxicity from poisons, medication,
        , or
      • Abnormal hormone levels, such as from the thyroid or adrenal gland
      • Abnormal blood chemistries, such as sodium or calcium
      • Very low or very high levels of blood sugar
      • Very low or very high body temperatures
      • Severe nutrient deficiency
      • Liver failure
      • Kidney failure
      • Inherited metabolic diseases

  • Definition

    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.

  • Diagnosis

    Since the patient cannot speak,
    the doctor will need to gather information from other sources. The doctor may need to speak to friends, family members, and people who witnessed the accident. 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. In addition, the following tests may be done:

    • Blood tests—to check blood glucose levels, organ function and screen for infection and toxic substances
    • Urine test—to test for the presence of drugs

    • Imaging tests, such as:

      • Neck
        —in cases where head and neck trauma may have occurred, a test that uses radiation to take pictures of structures inside the body
      • MRI scan
        —a test that uses magnetic and radio waves to make pictures of the inside of the body, in this case the brain
      • CT scan
        —a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the inside of the head
      • SPECT or Xenon—enhanced CT scan to test for blood flow and metabolic activity within the brain
    • Electroencephalogram (EEG)
      —a test that records the brain's activity by measuring electrical currents through the brain
    • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture)
      —removal of a small amount of cerebrospinal fluid to check for pressure, blood, and infection
    • Evoked potentials—a test for brain wave activity after stimulation of the sensory nerves (including the auditory nerves) of the body

    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 injury
    • 12-9—moderate brain injury
    • 8 or less—a severe brain injury

  • Prevention

    The following can help decrease your risk of coma:

    • Wear a
      . 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 medicine, see your doctor regularly for check-ups.

  • Risk Factors

    Risk factors for coma include:

    • Severe illness
    • Diabetes
    • Liver, kidney, or cardiovascular disease
    • Tendency to have blood clots
    • Exposure to poisonous substances (such as carbon dioxide)

    • Cancer and

    Risk factors for brain injury include:

    • Age: 5 years or younger, 15-24 years old, and 75 years or older
    • Sex: male
    • Traveling in a vehicle at a high rate of speed or at night
    • Lack of sleep
    • A previous head injury

  • Symptoms

    Symptoms of a coma include the following:

    • No response to stimulus, such as:

      • Pain
      • Sound
      • Touch
      • Sight

    • Spontaneous body movements, such as:

      • Jerking
      • Shaking
      • Trembling
      • Eyes opening and closing
      • Irregular breathing

  • Treatment

    A coma is a medical emergency. Any unconscious person should be taken to the emergency room immediately.