What You Need to Know about Comas

When your loved one is in a coma, it can be hard to accept all the health implications and risks that come with such a prognosis. You may ask: Why did this happen? How long will the coma last? What can I do?

This feeling of desperation is not one that any person wants to go through. No one wants to see their family member or loved one suffer. You need support. You want answers. We at the Brain Injury Law Center understand this and want to help as much as we can. 

Alternatively, if you’ve experienced a coma and have seen your quality of life decline, you know firsthand how difficult it is to recover from a brain injury. It’s not only the setback to your health that has caused prolonged suffering, but emotional and financial hardships as well.

Virginia’s Brain Injury Lawyers

The Brain Injury Law Center is your source of information and support when it comes to anything related to brain injuries and the terrible effects they can cause. A brain injury can change someone’s life and the lives of those around them.

If you or a loved has suffered a brain injury that resulted in a coma, discuss your case with a personal injury attorney who can help you understand your legal rights and options. Contact our law firm today for a free case evaluation by calling us toll-free at (757) 244-7000.

About Comas

While in a coma, a person can continue to heal and progress through different states of consciousness. However, persons who sustain a severe brain injury and experience coma can make significant improvements, but are often left with permanent physical, cognitive or behavioral impairments.

Coma Victim Characteristics

  • May appear to be “asleep” because they cannot be awakened or alerted;
  • The person may be unable to move or respond;
  • The person may respond minimally or even not at all to stimuli, including painful stimuli
  • Can show various levels of non-purposeful movements.
  • Will be unable to communicate or speak.
Read brain injury survivor stories from our Teach Believe Inspire network.

Types of Coma

Vegetative State (VS)

A vegetative state (VS) describes a severe brain injury in which arousal in the person is present, but the ability to interact with the environment is not. A person in this state may open their eyes spontaneously or in response to stimulation. General responses to pain exist, such as increased heart rate, increased respiration, or sweating. There is no test to specifically diagnose vegetative state; the diagnosis is made only by repetitive neurobehavioral assessments.

Minimally Responsive State (MR)

A minimally responsive state (MR) is when a person with a severe traumatic brain injury is no longer in a coma or a vegetative state. A person in this state may demonstrate primitive reflexes and an awareness of environmental stimulation, but an inconsistent ability to follow simple commands.

Akinetic Mutism

Akinetic mutism is a neurobehavioral condition that results when pathways in the brain are damaged, which results in minimal amount of body movement, little or no spontaneous speech and infrequent and incomplete ability to follow command. Akinetic mutism is different from a minimally responsive state because the lack of movement and speech with akinetic mutism is not because of neuromuscular disturbance.

Locked-in Syndrome

Locked-in syndrome is a rare neurological condition in which a person is conscious and able to think, but cannot physically move any part of the body except the eyes. Vertical eye movements and eye blinking can be used to communicate with others and operate environmental controls.

Brain Death

Brain death can result from a very severe injury to the brain. When brain death occurs, the brain shows no sign of functioning. The physician performs a specific formal brain death examination.

Treatment in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU)

After receiving emergency medical treatment, a person suffering from a severe brain injury and coma may be admitted to a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. The goals in the ICU include achieving medical stability, medical management, and prevention of medical crisis.

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Possible Tests and Assessments

As each person is an individual, the tests and assessments selected by the healthcare professionals may differ from person to person. Possible tests and assessments that may be used are described below:

EEG (Electroencephalogram)

An EEG detects electrical brain abnormalities, such as seizures. Testing involves placing small metal discs, called electrodes, on a person’s scalp.


X-rays are a type of picture taken to check the structural integrity of bones and the lungs. X-rays are also used to evaluate the placement of tubes, such as feeding tubes, in the stomach. To take an x-ray, a camera is focused on the body area to be examined and a picture is taken.
CT scan of brain with red area ( Imaging for hemorrhagic stroke or Ischemic stroke ( infarction ) concept )

CT or CAT Scan (Computed Tomography Scan)

CT scans are used to view harm to brain structures, the skull, and facial bones. CT scans are a good detector of bleeding, blood clots, swelling or compression in the brain. CT scans take pictures of the brain in layers, so it produces images in the form of slices that make up the brain, like the slices that make up a loaf of bread. Not all types of brain injuries show up on CT scans. To take a CT scan, a camera is focused on the body area to be examined and the pictures are taken.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

A MRI uses an imaging technique to provide a more detailed view of the brain structure than CT scans. A MRI is advantageous for examination of the brain stem and cerebellum structure (deep brain structures), since these views can be limited on a CT scan.

Other types of tests might include:

  • Arterial Blood Gas (ABG)
  • Electrolytes Angiogram
  • Spect Scan
  • Neurological Exam
  • Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS)
  • Rancho Los Amigos Scale

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens in the brain when someone is in a coma?

A comatose person is not “brain dead.” The brain still performs the basic tasks that keep the body alive, such as breathing, circulating blood and sleeping. What is not present in a comatose brain is cognition. For this reason, a person in a coma does not respond to his or her surroundings in any meaningful way and does not exhibit higher levels of brain function. Put simply, a comatose brain does not “think,” but it is not in a state of complete shutdown.

What can cause a coma?

There are a number of conditions and incidents which can lead to a coma including, but not limited to: traumatic brain injury; stroke; diabetes; infection; and lack of oxygen.

How long can a coma last?

According to the National Institutes of Health, it is uncommon for comas to exceed 2 to 4 weeks. However, there is no limit to how long a coma may last under certain conditions. Some patients have remained in a coma for decades.

How long can a person be in a coma and still recover?

There is no established answer. When a person remains in a vegetative state – a specific and severe type of coma — for more than a year, the chances of recovery are “extremely unlikely” according to the Mayo Clinic. However, some people have woken up after years in a coma.

Can a person recover from brain damage?

Yes. There are many stories of inspiring people who recover from a coma and go on to live relatively normal lives, sometimes beating hefty odds in the process. According to a one National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research study, the quickest recovery typically occurs in the first six months, but for some people this initial healing period may last up to two years. Sadly, this scenario is not always the case. A comatose person may never regain consciousness, or may have lifelong cognitive impairments once the coma has lifted.

Can a comatose person hear me when I speak to them?

According to first-hand accounts from people who have suffered a coma, the answer is yes. If a loved one is suffering from a coma, you should speak to them reassuringly and offer support.

Can a person in a coma respond to commands?

Somewhat — but not in any meaningful way. In certain types of comas, a person may make facial expressions and appear otherwise normal, but this is deceiving. A comatose person will typically have no movement beyond automatic reflex motions. While it may appear that a person in a coma is responding to commands, it is only in the most basic definition of the phrase.

Can a coma cause death?

A coma itself will not directly cause the death of a patient, but the underlying cause of the coma can. A comatose state might also hide other medical problems that would be obvious in a conscious person. The most common cause of death in coma patients is infection.

Get Help Now

The Brain Injury Law Center is a supporter of the Brain Injury Association of America and encourages everyone to become a member of this outstanding organization.

Please contact the Brain Injury Law Center for a FREE case evaluation with a caring and knowledgeable personal injury lawyer who can help you understand your legal rights and options. You should be compensated for your suffering and know someone is standing beside you.

Your story is important to us. Contact us today at (757) 244-7000 or fill out the form to the right to speak with an attorney.

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