A coma is a medical condition where an individual is unconscious for an extended period of time. Comas occur when the functioning of certain brain areas is affected, mainly the cerebral cortex (the outer surface that covers most of the brain) and the reticular activating system (an area in the brainstem). The causes of comas may include lack of oxygen to the brain, stroke, trauma, brain swelling, brain bleeding, infections, seizures, and extremely high or extremely low blood sugar levels (diabetes), among many others. Some of these causes result in only a temporary state of coma while others can be permanent.
Symptoms of a coma may include being unresponsive to external stimuli, like pain, sound or touch. Depending on the cause, the unconscious individual may remain perfectly still or may move randomly. These random movements may include shaking, trembling or jerking of the body. Though more uncommon, a coma can also develop slowly. Individuals experiencing a slow developing coma gradually become more confused or drowsy, while also possibly experiencing a headache, fever, rash, muscular pains or dizziness, and eventually slip into unconsciousness.
The treatment for a coma varies drastically depending on the cause. Every individual case is different, and it is therefore difficult to predict when an individual will wake up and if the individual will have any long-term disabilities. Various imaging and lab studies are usually necessary to determine the exact cause of the coma in order to plan appropriate treatment. A coma is a medical emergency that should be treated as soon as possible. If a family member is in a coma, talk with their doctor and specialists about the most current treatment options. Reaching out for support, either to those in your family or friend network or through hospital social workers may help you during this stressful time.