What is a Coma?

People who are in a comatose (coma) state lack the ability to voluntarily respond to their surroundings. A person’s organs still function while they are in a coma so their heart still beats and they can breathe on their own. It is highly unusual for a person to be in a coma for more than four weeks, but longer time periods are possible.

People can become comatose when they suffer damage to the brain. This may occur due to head trauma, lack of oxygen to the brain, seizures, strokes or central nervous system infections.

Sometimes a temporary coma can be induced by a clinician by using barbiturate drugs.  Mimicking a  coma may be necessary in the case of severe injuries in order to give the brain time to heal.

By reducing the amount of energy that the brain needs, doctors try to reduce the flow of blood to the injured areas, thus getting rid of the swelling that might be putting at risk the brain. This medically induced coma is reversible since clinicians can simple reduce and ultimately suspend the coma inducing drugs.

What are the Symptoms of a Coma?

Individuals who are in a comatose state will fail to respond to sounds or pain and they are unable to speak or think. People who are in a coma cannot move their arms or legs, but these limbs may move due to natural reflexes. A physician can perform tests on the brain, such as a computerized tomography scan, magnetic resonance imaging or an electroencephalography to determine the areas of the brain that are affected.

Coma Causes

Most frequent causes of coma are forceful strikes to the head during a vehicle accident or brutal acts. Life responses causing comas involve medications or drugs, health conditions, nervous system disorders, and brain infections.

Sometimes, a coma is induced to protect the individual from excessive suffering during the healing process. Other coma inducing conditions are an attempt to save the brain functions after a life-threatening trauma.

A stroke can cause a coma when a blood clot or ruptured artery interrupts the blood flow to the brain. Tumors, cerebral aneurysms and high blood pressure can lead to bleeding in the brain, impairing the brain’s functions, leading to a coma.

Infections of the central nervous system can cause severe inflammation in the brain and surrounding areas, triggering a coma. Excessive alcohol or drugs, and not taking care of your diabetes, can all raise the levels of substances in our body to toxic concentrations, interfering with the brain’s neurons and prompting a coma.

How is a Coma Treated?

When a person lapses into a coma, physicians will immediately begin treatment to protect a person’s brain function.

Treatment includes

If an infection is present in a person’s brain, the physician will begin administering antibiotics to the patient.

Other types of medications may also be given depending on the cause of the coma. If the brain begins to swell, surgery may be recommended to ease the pressure on the brain.

When a comatose individual is in a medically stabilized condition, treatment will focus on keeping the patient healthy by supplying nourishment, routinely re-positioning the patient to prevent bed sores and providing physical therapy to keep the muscles from becoming stiff and atrophied.

Coma Prevention

Comas are preventable with good health practices and safety behaviors. It is a matter of taking care of yourself and lessening the risk of a coma. If you are active in sports, wear the proper headgear to protect against serious injury contributing to a coma. Vehicle accidents are the leading cause of comas in adults and children – adhere to the safety rules and follow the traffic laws.

If you have an ongoing health condition linked to comas, talk with your doctor and learn how you can minimize the risk of aggravating your body. Talk with your family about your health conditions and educate them on how to respond in the event your medication produces a harmful reaction. Be sure to visit your doctor regularly if you are ill or taking medications.

Last Reviewed:
September 19, 2016
Last Updated:
December 07, 2017