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Coma is a sleep-like state in which the patient makes no purposeful response to the environment and from which he or she cannot be aroused. The eyes are closed and do not open spontaneously. The patient does not speak, and there is no purposeful movement of the face or limbs. Verbal stimulation produces no response. Painful stimulation may produce no response or nonpurposeful reflex movements mediated through spinal cord or brainstem pathways.

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Coma results from a disturbance in the function of either the brainstem reticular activating system above the mid pons or of both cerebral hemispheres (Figure 3-1), as these are the brain regions that maintain consciousness.

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Figure 3-1.
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Anatomic basis of coma. Consciousness is maintained by the normal functioning of the brainstem reticular activating system above the mid pons and its bilateral projections to the thalamus and cerebral hemispheres. Coma results from lesions that affect either the reticular activating system or both hemispheres.

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The approach to diagnosis of the comatose patient consists first of emergency measures to stabilize the patient and treat presumptively certain life-threatening disorders, followed by efforts to establish an etiologic diagnosis.

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Emergency Management

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As summarized in Table 3-1, emergency management of the comatose patient includes the following steps:

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  1. Ensure patency of the airway and adequacy of ventilation and circulation. This is accomplished by rapid visual inspection and by measuring the vital signs. If the airway is obstructed, the obstruction should be cleared and the patient intubated. If there is evidence of trauma that may have affected the cervical spine, however, the neck should not be moved until stability has been established by x-rays of the cervical spine. If spinal instability is present and intubation is required, tracheostomy should be performed. Adequacy of ventilation can be established by the absence of cyanosis, a respiratory rate greater than 8/min, the presence of breath sounds on auscultation of the chest, and the results of arterial blood gas and pH studies (see later). If any of these suggest inadequate ventilation, the patient should be ventilated mechanically. Measurement of the pulse and blood pressure provides a rapid assessment of the status of the circulation. Circulatory embarrassment should be treated with intravenous fluid replacement, pressors, and antiarrhythmic drugs, as indicated.

  2. Insert an intravenous catheter and withdraw blood for laboratory studies. These studies should include measurement of serum glucose and electrolytes, hepatic and renal function tests, prothrombin time, partial thromboplastin time, and a complete blood count. Extra tubes of blood should also be obtained for additional studies that may be useful in certain cases, such as drug screens, and for tests that become necessary as diagnostic evaluation proceeds.

  3. Begin an intravenous infusion and administer dextrose, thiamine, and naloxone. Every comatose patient should be given 25 g of dextrose intravenously, typically as 50 mL of ...

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