Unconscious healing

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: April 6th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Induced coma, described recently in high-profile news stories about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Sago Mine survivor, isn’t a new medical procedure. In fact, for more than twenty-five years physicians have used it in medical, neurological and surgical intensive care units.

The idea is to give the brain a rest so it… and the rest of the body… have a fighting chance to recover from life-threatening trauma.

It’s like a planned hibernation, say medical experts, who call it “sedation.” To induce coma, doctors use sedatives to switch the brain to sleep mode. Then they monitor brain activity and adjust drug levels to keep the patient asleep. In the resting state, the brain requires less oxygen, blood and glucose, and swelling in the brain is more likely to decrease.

Swelling is a natural repair mechanism for other parts of the body because it protects tissues from further damage. But that’s not the case for the brain, where swelling and pressure can stop blood flow and even kill healthy brain tissue.

The goal is to protect the brain from additional injury, which over the long run can be more damaging than the initial trauma.

Still, experts say any coma… even one designed to help the brain recuperate… is risky. For example, pneumonia… which commonly develops because comatose patients can’t move… can pose a challenge.

But by inducing and maintaining the coma, physicians can often buy precious time for patients in dangerous straits.