The notion of falling into a coma is understandably terrifying. Completely unable to move, talk, or control even the most basic of functions, people in comatose states rely entirely on others to survive. Being comatose means you lie in a deep and prolonged state of unconsciousness, and it can happen to anybody. Even simple trauma to the head can be enough to damage your brain and send you into an unresponsive state. A build-up of toxins in your body or a lack of oxygen can also drop you into this state, and it's not always possible to wake up.
People in this state are typically unresponsive regardless of stimuli like pain or hunger. Despite seeming like extended sleep, this state can affect the body in quite damaging ways, and even relatively short spells can leave lasting effects. Plenty of firsthand accounts illustrate just how they can take a toll both mentally and physically. Your brain might create a completely alternate reality, or you might be able to sense the outside world but have no way to communicate at all.
Regardless of the mental strains, the body is guaranteed to have issues from the moment you first slip into this condition. Muscle atrophy and digestive problems only scratch the surface of what a persistent unconscious state can do to your body.
One of the reasons comatose patients lose all sense of consciousness is because of a communication issue between the brainstem and the cerebrum, a condition with dire implications. The reticular activating system allows the brainstem and cerebrum to communicate. When it gets disrupted, the brain no longer functions properly.
The resulting communication breakdown produces a state of deep unconsciousness.
Being in the hospital for an extended period wreaks havoc on your muscles, regardless of whether you're conscious or not. One study claims that up to 90% of ICU patients subjected to prolonged stays experience some level of muscle atrophy, meaning their muscles will begin to lose strength from lack of use. More than just an issue for arms and legs, this issue extends to the heart muscles and the respiratory system, which can lead to complications.
The best way to deal with muscle atrophy is to prevent it from ever happening, but that can be difficult for people in this condition. Luckily, scientists discovered that the use of neuromuscular electrical stimulation helps offset the muscle atrophy that occurs. By sending a small jolt to a person's nerves, the stimulation helps keep their muscles in use.
One of the defining traits is the inability to sense or react to external stimuli. While in this state, the body remains entirely unable to respond to any stimuli. This includes everything from soft touches to intense discomfort. When exposed to intense stimuli, your body doesn't even flinch.
In addition, your perceptivity would be almost entirely gone. You likely wouldn't be able to hear, smell, or taste anything.
A common misconception is that a person goes completely vegetative in this condition. In fact, a lot of neural activity takes place in a comatose person. Researchers conducted a study to see what exactly happens to the brain and discovered that while some parts of the brain begin to shut down, others spring to life.
Indiana University neuroscientist Olaf Sporns described what happened in a comatose patient's brain, saying: "The traffic patterns have totally reorganized." The parts of your brain responsible for consciousness and memory become most negatively affected, while parts that are normally more dormant see increased activity.