Coma is among the most common and striking problems in general medicine. It accounts for a substantial portion of admissions to emergency wards and occurs on all hospital services. It demands immediate attention and requires an organized approach.
There is a continuum of states of reduced alertness, the most severe form being coma, defined as a deep sleeplike state from which the patient cannot be aroused. Stupor refers to a higher degree of arousability in which the patient can be transiently awakened by vigorous stimuli, accompanied by motor behavior that leads to avoidance of uncomfortable or aggravating stimuli. Drowsiness, which is familiar to all persons, simulates light sleep and is characterized by easy arousal and the persistence of alertness for brief periods. Drowsiness and stupor are usually accompanied by some degree of confusion (Chap. 34). A precise narrative description of the level of arousal and of the type of responses evoked by various stimuli as observed at the bedside is preferable to ambiguous terms such as lethargy, semicoma, or obtundation.
Several conditions that render patients unresponsive and simulate coma are considered separately because of their special significance. The vegetative state signifies an awake-appearing but nonresponsive state in a patient who has emerged from coma. In the vegetative state, the eyelids may open, giving the appearance of wakefulness. Respiratory and autonomic functions are retained. Yawning, coughing, swallowing, and limb and head movements persist, and the patient may follow visually presented objects, but there are few, if any, meaningful responses to the external and internal environment—in essence, an “awake coma.” The term vegetative is unfortunate because it is subject to misinterpretation. There are always accompanying signs that indicate extensive damage in both cerebral hemispheres, e.g., decerebrate or decorticate limb posturing and absent responses to visual stimuli (see below). In the closely related but less severe minimally conscious state, the patient displays rudimentary vocal or motor behaviors, often spontaneous, but some in response to touch, visual stimuli, or command. Cardiac arrest with cerebral hypoperfusion and head injuries are the most common causes of the vegetative and minimally conscious states (Chaps. 327 and 330). The prognosis for regaining mental faculties once the vegetative state has supervened for several months is very poor, and after a year, almost nil; hence the term persistent vegetative state. Most reports of dramatic recovery, when investigated carefully, are found to yield to the usual rules for prognosis, but there have been rare instances in which recovery has occurred to a severely disabled condition and, in rare childhood cases, to an even better state. The possibility of incorrectly attributing meaningful behavior to patients in the vegetative and minimally conscious states creates inordinate problems and anguish. On the other hand, the question of whether these patients lack any capability for cognition has been reopened by functional imaging studies that have demonstrated, in a small ...