Coma (Medical)

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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What is a coma?

Coma is a state of decreased consciousness whereby a patient cannot react with the surrounding environment. The patient cannot be easily wakened when outside physical or auditory stimulation are applied. Patients may have different levels of decreased consciousness and responsiveness depending upon how much or how little of the brain is functioning. Patients in coma do not voluntarily interact with their environment.

The inability to waken differentiates coma from sleep.

What is the Glasgow Coma Scale?

The Glasgow Coma Scale was developed to provide healthcare professionals with a simple way of measuring the depth of coma based upon observations of eye opening, speech, and movement. Patients in the deepest level of coma:

  • do not respond with any body movement to pain,
  • do not have any speech, and
  • do not open their eyes.

Those in lighter coma may offer some response to a verbal or painful stimulus, to the point they may even seem wake, yet meet the criteria of coma because they do not respond to their environment by initiating voluntary actions.

The Glasgow Coma Scale is used as part of the initial evaluation of a patient, but does not assist in making the diagnosis as to the cause of coma. Since it "scores" the level of coma, the Glasgow Coma Scale can be used as a standard method for any healthcare professional, from EMT, paramedic, nurse, or neurosurgeon, to assess change in the patient's mental status over time.

The best use of the Glasgow Coma Scale is to allow healthcare professionals of different clinical skills and training to consistently assess a patient over longer periods of time in order to determine whether the patient is improving, deteriorating, or remaining the same. In the initial care of a comatose patient, chronologically, there may be first responders, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics, nurses, emergency physicians, neurologists, and neurosurgeons, all evaluating the same patient in different places at different times. The Glasgow Coma Scale allows a standard assessment that can be shared.

Glasgow Coma Scale
Eye Opening
To loud voice3
To pain2
Verbal Response
Confused, Disoriented4
Inappropriate words3
Incomprehensible words2
Motor Response
Obeys commands6
Localizes pain5
Withdraws from pain4
Abnormal flexion posturing3
Extensor posturing2

A fully awake patient has a Glasgow  Coma Score of 15. A person who is dead has a Glasgow Coma Scale of 3 (there is no lower score).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/11/2016
  • Coma - Causes

    What caused your coma, or that of someone you know?

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  • Coma - Diagnosis

    How was your loved one diagnosed with a coma?

  • Coma - Experience

    Please share your experience with coma.


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