What is a vegetative state?
A vegetative state is when people with brain damage appear to be awake but don't do any purposeful actions or respond to what's going on around them.
A person in a vegetative state has basic automatic movements, such as breathing, coughing, yawning, or swallowing but doesn't do anything purposeful
Some people recover, but most die within 6 months
People in a vegetative state for longer than a few months are unlikely to recover
Vegetative state is different from a coma Stupor and Coma Medical problems that affect your brain often keep you from being wide awake and thinking clearly. You may be affected only a little or a whole lot, ranging from being: Slightly less alert than... read more in that people's eyes are open and they appear to be awake.
What causes a vegetative state?
A vegetative state happens when:
The part of the brain that controls thinking and awareness stops working
The part of the brain that controls breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure continues to work
Causes involve severe brain damage from:
A head injury
Lack of oxygen to the brain (such as from drowning Drowning Drowning occurs when submersion in liquid causes suffocation or interferes with breathing. During drowning, the body is deprived of oxygen, which can damage organs, particularly the brain. Doctors... read more or cardiac arrest Cardiac Arrest and CPR Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood and oxygen to the brain and other organs and tissues. Sometimes a person can be revived after cardiac arrest, particularly if treatment is... read more )
What are the symptoms of a vegetative state?
People in a vegetative state can:
Open their eyes and blink
Sleep and wake up on a regular schedule
Do basic automatic movements, such as breathing, sucking, chewing, gagging, coughing, and swallowing
Be startled by loud sounds
People in a vegetative state can't:
Be aware of what’s going on around them
Speak or follow instructions
Think or move their body on purpose, such as to pull away from something painful
Control when they urinate or pass stool
How can doctors tell if someone is in a vegetative state?
Doctors suspect a vegetative state based on the person’s symptoms. To tell for sure, they may:
Closely watch the person for a period of time to see if the person is aware and responsive
Do tests, such as MRI Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) MRI is a test that uses a machine with a powerful magnet to make pictures of the inside of your body. A computer records changes in the magnetic field around your body. The computer then uses... read more or CT scan Computed Tomography A CT scan uses a large machine shaped like a large donut to take x-rays from many angles. A computer then takes the x-rays and creates many detailed pictures of the inside of your body. Each... read more of the head
Do an EEG Electroencephalography (EEG) Brain waves are electrical signals your brain makes. Your brain is always making electrical signals, even when you're asleep. Certain brain problems such as seizures cause changes in your brain... read more (a painless test that records the brain’s electrical activity)
How do doctors treat someone in a vegetative state?
There's no treatment to make a vegetative state get better. People sometimes recover a bit on their own depending on what their original problem was and how severe it was. People don't come back to normal, but a few relearn how to talk and understand people.
A person in a vegetative state needs long-term care, including:
Feeding by tube
Medicine to prevent blood clots
Moving the arms and legs to prevent muscle stiffness
A tube (catheter) in the bladder to drain urine
Cleaning and bathing
If a person has been in a vegetative state for a long time and show no signs of recovering, doctors may talk to the family about not giving life-sustaining treatment in the event of a new illness or complication. Doctors and the person's family consider what the person would want and review any instructions available in a living will (advance directive Advance Directives Health care advance directives are legal documents that communicate a person’s wishes about health care decisions in the event the person becomes incapable of making health care decisions. There... read more ).