Drug-Induced Coma

A coma is defined as a state of ongoing unconsciousness, and though it can happen naturally as a response to trauma or overdose, the term “drug-induced coma” refers to the medical practice of purposefully putting a patient into a prolonged state of unconsciousness using a low, controlled dose of sedating drugs, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is a rarely used medical tactic due to the risks involved, and only in cases of the worst brain trauma, seizures or blows to the head is it employed to mitigate harm.

Drug-Induced Coma Quick Facts

  • Drug-induced comas are a medical state induced by a doctor.
  • A low controlled dose of a barbiturate drug is administered in order to maintain the patient’s coma state.
  • There are a number of different medical benefits that may be gained by inducing a coma.
  • There are possible complications that can occur, and these must be weighed against potential benefits.

What Happens to the Brain During a Coma?

The brain continues to function but at its lowest level of alertness. Basic functions like breathing and heart rate remain constant, and the patient may have a reflex response to touch or pain. Signs of understanding what is said or done around him may also be reflexive but it is often suggested that family members talk to their loved one in a coma as if they were aware and conscious, according to the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.

Potential Complications of Drug-Induced Coma

Though there can be great reward to inducing a coma in a patient, it is only a last ditch effort used when nothing else is achieving the desired medical results. This is because there are a number of complications that can develop. According to the Washington Post, alternative treatments are more and more often taking the place of drug-induced coma. These include:

  • Hypothermia: lowering the patient’s body temperature.
  • Craniectomy: removing part of the skull so that the brain may have more room to swell without damage.

Reasons to Induce a Coma

There are a number of different medical reasons to induce coma in a patient. Some of these include:

  • To control brain swelling
  • To mitigate harm during a prolonged seizure
  • To provide the patient time to heal
  • To allow the brain to rest

Why the Brain Benefits From a Drug-Induced Coma

The brain is the most active organism in the body. It is due to its activity that we dream, wake up in the morning, and continue to breathe and experience regular heart beats no matter what our focus or activity. The pipeline of blood into the brain is highly active as the brain continually draws the nutrients, oxygen and glucose it needs to function. Should this pipeline become blocked by a blood clot, a stroke can develop. Should it become dysfunctional and allow too much blood to enter, the brain must work harder and often swells as a result – but because a hard, immovable skull encases it, there is no room for the swelling to occur as it attempts to heal itself. When a doctor uses drugs to induce a coma, brain activity is limited, giving it a chance to rest and heal without swelling further and potentially causing more damage.