What Is a Coma?

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When someone is in a prolonged state of unconsciousness, they are in a coma. This is a medical emergency, and immediate action is required to save the individual’s brain function and life.

A series of blood tests and brain scans will be conducted to determine the cause of the coma so that the correct treatment can be administered as soon as possible.

It is rare for a coma to last longer than several weeks. When people are unconscious for an extended period of time, they are classified as being in a persistent vegetative state or brain death.

An out-of-focus shot of a comatose patient in a well-lit hospital room at daytime.

What Is The Cause of Coma?

A coma is caused when there is a serious problem with the brain’s arousal system or the reticular activating system or with its communications between other brain areas, such as the cerebral hemispheres. These problems cause the brain’s activity to become impaired.

There are many possible causes for someone to experience a coma. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, some of the most common causes include:

  • Traumatic Brain Injury – these are usually caused by traffic accidents, falls, or violent acts
  • Stroke – blocked arteries or broken blood vessels can stop or reduce blood flow to the brain resulting in a stroke
  • Brain Tumor – growths in the brain or brain stem can put pressure on the brain and its blood vessels
  • Diabetes – too high or too low blood sugar levels can cause a coma
  • Lack of Oxygen – survivors of heart attacks, strangulation, or drowning may experience a lack of oxygen to their brains, causing them to not regain consciousness
  • Infections – encephalitis and meningitis are infections that cause swelling in the brain, spinal cord, or tissues surrounding these areas. Brain damage and coma are possible outcomes when these infections are severe
  • Seizures – untreated and ongoing seizures can result in a coma
  • Toxins – exposure to carbon monoxide, lead, or other harmful toxins can cause brain damage and a coma
  • Drug or Alcohol Intoxication – a drug or alcohol overdose commonly results in a coma

What Are the Symptoms of a Coma?

Symptoms of a coma typically include the following:

  • Closed eyes
  • No response to painful stimuli except for reflex movements
  • No responses of limbs except for reflex movements
  • Depressed brainstem reflexes, such as pupils not responding to light
  • Irregular breathing

What Are Possible Complications From Being In a Coma?

Many people slowly recover from a coma, while others succumb to a persistent vegetative state or death. According to the Mayo Clinic, survivors of comas may be left with a mild or severe disability, typically due to the cause of the coma or delayed treatment.

Other problems people in comas commonly experience are:

  • Urinary Tract Infections
  • Bedsores
  • Blood Clot Formations

What Immediate Care Is Given to Coma Patients?

Doctors will search for the cause of the coma, but a proper diagnosis may take hours or even days because of all the diagnostic testing that needs to be performed. Coma is a medical emergency, so the patient will be given immediate intensive care, which may include any or all of the following:

  • Constant monitoring of their vital signs, including pulse, breathing, and blood pressure
  • An intravenous line to provide fluids and medications
  • An oxygen mask
  • A respirator, if the person is unable to breathe on their own
  • Urinary bladder catheterization
  • Intravenous glucose if their sugar levels are low
  • Pumping of the stomach, if it is believed that the person ate or drank something poisonous
  • Administration of a narcotic antidote, if a drug overdose is suspected

What Is the Treatment for Coma?

The severity and cause of the coma will determine the proper course of treatment. The most common treatments include:

  • Antibiotics if there is an infection
  • Intravenous administration of glucose in the case of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar
  • Intravenous administration of naloxone in the case of a heroin overdose
  • Surgery if the patient has a hemorrhage, for example, subdural hematoma (a bleeding bruise made up of blood clots between the brain and its covering)

Recovery From Coma

Comas are very serious. Anyone who becomes comatose has a high chance of not waking up again.

Death is a strong possibility. Recovery mostly depends on the severity and the cause of the coma, as well as the treatment and how quickly the patient received that treatment.

There are many cases where the patient makes a full recovery with no lasting side effects. Unfortunately, there are also a large number of people who suffer various amounts of brain damage and lost brain function.

The symptoms from the damage may last for the survivor’s lifetime.

What Is a Persistent Vegetative State?

When people do not recover from a coma, they may descend into a persistent vegetative state. This is where the brain loses all higher functioning, such as consciousness, personality, and self-awareness.

The brain is still capable of maintaining involuntary functions, such as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and swallowing.

A vegetative state typically occurs when someone has suffered from a severe traumatic brain injury or when they have been deprived of oxygen for a prolonged amount of time. Doctors typically wait until the coma has lasted for at least three weeks before diagnosing a persistent vegetative state.

The patient may still respond to loud noises, breathe, and swallow, but they will not be capable of achieving consciousness or displaying personality.

A vegetative state may continue for months or even years with the proper care. The longer someone remains in this form of coma, the less likely they are to make a recovery.

What Does a Vegetative State Coma Look Like?

Vegetative state coma patients are similar to coma patients. Some of the characteristics of this prolonged state include:

  • The person looks like they are asleep
  • Heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration continue
  • They cannot wake up
  • They will not talk or respond to commands
  • Their eyes may open in response to stimuli
  • The person is able to move their body
  • The person can randomly laugh, cry, or make faces

What Are the Complications of a Vegetative State Coma?

Common complications patients may suffer from while in a persistent vegetative state include:

  • Infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Bedsores or pressure sores
  • Contracture – when muscles atrophy or shorten and contort the body

What Is the Ongoing Treatment For Vegetative State Coma?

If there is any hope that the patient will recover from their comatose condition, it is critical that they are kept as healthy as possible. There is no way to know how long a vegetative state will persist, but the patient’s chances of recovery decrease the longer they remain in a coma.

When the patient’s family wishes to continue medical care for the patient in hopes that they will recover, the ongoing treatment will include:

  • Keeping the skin clean and regularly turning the person to prevent bedsores and ulcers
  • Physical therapy to help keep the muscles supple
  • Prevention and treatment of infection
  • Good nutrition delivered via an intravenous drip or nasogastric tube, which is placed in through the nose and down into the stomach

What Is Recovery From a Vegetative State Coma Like?

Recovery from a vegetative state is possible, but it is typically a slow process. The patient will first become aware of their surroundings and eventually become able to respond.

Sadly, only a very small number of people who wake up from a persistent vegetative state that has lasted over six months are able to continue with their daily activities and live independently. The vast majority of these survivors remain permanently disabled with brain damage.

What Is Brain Death?

When someone has suffered from severe brain damage and is no longer able to breathe on their own, they are diagnosed with brain death. Patients with brain death need to be kept on a respirator to keep their bodies alive.

Patients are given an electroencephalogram or EEG to check for brain activity. When there is no brain activity, that person has suffered brain death and is considered to have died.

Their heart will continue to beat, but the person will die when disconnected from the medical machinery.

Pursuing Compensation for Damages

The damages suffered by someone who had sustained a coma are often monumental. Patients and their families have to deal with ongoing medical and nursing home care, lost wages, loss of future income, and loss of enjoyment of life.

The attorneys at Tatum & Atkinson: The Heavy Hitters have successfully achieved favorable compensation for coma patients and patients still suffering from a persistent vegetative state.

If your family member or loved one has suffered a coma as a result of someone else’s negligent actions, contact the brain injury lawyers at Tatum & Atkinson right away at (800) LAW-0804 for a free consultation to see how we can help.