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Vegetative State

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2019| Content last modified Apr 2019
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NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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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 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:

What are the symptoms of a vegetative state?

People in a vegetative state can:

  • Open their eyes, 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

People who have some awareness may be in a minimally conscious state.

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 or CT scan of the head

  • Do an EEG (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

  • Frequently turning the person's body to prevent pressure sores

  • 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 new illness or complication. Doctors and the person's family consider what the person would want and any instructions in a living will (advance directive).

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
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