Coma FAQs

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. The following list is from the Mayo Clinic:

  • A traumatic brain injury
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Infection
  • Lack of oxygen
  • Seizures
  • Drug/alcohol overdose
  • Toxins
  • Tumors

How long can a coma last?

According to the National Institutes of Health, comas exceeding 2 to 4 weeks are uncommon. 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. But some people have woken up after years in a coma, such as this man, who was comatose for two years after an auto accident.

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. Scientists call the ability of the brain to grow new brain cells – thought impossible until relatively recently – plasticity.

According to a research institution funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, the quickest recovery typically occurs in the first six months, but for some people this initial healing period may last up to two years. After two years, the rate of recovery slows significantly, but the person’s overall condition may still steadily improve.

But 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 some comatose people may speak, this will only occur when spoken to first. So, 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. A comatose person cannot respond to commands like a normal person.

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, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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