September 30, 2020
A coma is a serious condition that can be caused by a number of problems, such as a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or drug overdose. A lot of what we think we know about it is based on TV portrayals, which may lead many to believe a coma has is like a very long nap. But a coma, be it for that period or a shorter or longer duration, is distinct from even the deepest sleep.
When a coma occurs, the body goes into a state of minimal consciousness. A person in a coma has no responses other than reflex movements. That means that pain, loud noises, or temperature changes can’t wake the person.
But a person in a coma is still very much alive. Here are three important things still happening while they’re unresponsive.
Although the brain isn’t functioning at its normal level in a coma, much of the body is still functioning. Some people in a coma require a ventilator to breathe, but comatose people still require food, which their body digests as usual. In a coma the hair still grows, and muscles mass still responds to stimulus—nurses often move coma patients to keep their muscles from atrophying. There’s still a lot going on in the body, even if it doesn’t look that way.
While a person is in their comatose state, their body is working to get them out of it. In the case of a drug overdose or disease such as diabetes, medications can be given to help restore normal brain function. Brain swelling can be a cause of a coma, and in those cases, the body will work to heal while doctors reduce swelling.
Comatose people won’t actually respond to any stimulus, but it is possible they can still hear what’s going on around them. Some patients experience increased brain activity while being read to or watching television, so if a loved one or friend is in a coma, it’s worth spending some time with them. The comatose person may even cry, laugh, or show other spontaneous movements even though they are not aware of their surroundings.
Finally, even if they don’t know it, a comatose person is preparing for a long road to recovery. Although some people do fully recover from comas, the effects can be long-lasting. Most patients come out of their comas gradually, and they may require physical therapy to regain even basic motor functions depending on how much brain damage they sustained.
If someone in your life goes into a coma, it’s important to remember that they will need help and support when they come out of it. Even if it doesn’t look like there’s much happening on the outside, know they’re healing and still very much alive—and do what you can to prepare to help them when they emerge.
Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.