Comas are a popular plot point in movies and television, but what exactly is a coma?
What Is a Coma?
When someone falls into a coma, he or she is in a prolonged state of unconsciousness. To outsiders, it looks as though the patient is just in a deep sleep; however, the patient can’t be awakened.
What Causes a Coma?
Comas are the result of injury to the brain. The injury can be caused by bleeding, increased pressure, buildup of toxins or a lack of oxygen. The injury can be either temporary and reversible or permanent. Over half of comas are related to head trauma or to disturbances in the circulatory system of the brain.
The following problems in the brain can lead to a coma:
- blood sugar
- oxygen deprivation
- repeated seizures
What Are the Types of Coma?
Types of coma include:
- Toxic-metabolic encephalopathy—an acute condition of brain dysfunction where the patient presents as confused, delirious, or both. This condition can usually be reversed. The causes are varied, but can include infection, systemic illness and organ failure.
- Anoxic brain injury—This brain condition is caused by a complete lack of oxygen to the brain. When the brain lacks oxygen for a few minutes, brain tissues can experience cell death. Anoxic brain injuries can be a result of a heart attack, drowning, head injury or trauma, drug overdose or poisoning.
- Persistent vegetative state—Patients in this state are severely unconscious. The patient is unaware of his or her surroundings and is not able to move. Even if a patient in a persistent vegetative state is able to awaken, he or she may have no higher brain functioning. Those in persistent vegetative state are able to breathe and have sleep-wake cycles.
- Locked-in syndrome—With this rare neurological condition, the patient is completely paralyzed except for the eye muscles. The patient remains awake and alert and has a normal mind.
- Brain death—Brain death can be caused by lasting or widespread injury to the brain. The patient loses all brain function, and the condition is irreversible.
- Medically induced—This is a type of temporary coma, or a deep state of unconsciousness. Doctors use this type of coma to protect the brain from swelling if the patient has suffered an injury. The doctor administers a controlled dose of anesthetic, which makes the patient lose feeling or awareness. The doctors then watch the patient’s vitals.
Can Comas Be Treated?
Treatment for comas is mostly supportive. The patient may receive medications, surgery or antibiotics to help relieve complications. If a patient has suffered a coma because of an overdose, the coma can usually be reversed if the patient receives medical attention quickly.
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