Chapter 28 – Functional coma

Lea Ludwig, Laura Mcwhirter, S. Williams, Christopher Derry, Jon Stone

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Abstract / Description of output

Functional coma – here defined as a prolonged motionless dissociative attack with absent or reduced response to external stimuli – is a relatively rare presentation.

In this chapter we examine a wide range of terms used to describe states of unresponsiveness in which psychologic factors are relevant to etiology, such as depressive stupor, catatonia, nonepileptic “pseudostatus,” and factitious disorders, and discuss the place of functional or psychogenic coma among these.

Historically, diagnosis of functional coma has sometimes been reached after prolonged investigation and exclusion of other diagnoses. However, as is the case with other functional disorders, diagnosis should preferably be made on the basis of positive findings that provide evidence of inconsistency between an apparent comatose state and normal waking nervous system functioning. In our review of physical signs, we find some evidence for the presence of firm resistance to eye opening as reasonably sensitive and specific for functional coma, as well as the eye gaze sign, in which patients tend to look to the ground when turned on to one side. Noxious stimuli such as Harvey's sign (application of high-frequency vibrating tuning fork to the nasal mucosa) can also be helpful, although patients with this disorder are often remarkably unresponsive to usually painful stimuli, particularly as more commonly applied using sternal or nail bed pressure. The use of repeated painful stimuli is therefore not recommended. We also discuss the role of general anesthesia and other physiologic triggers to functional coma.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Clinical Neurology
Subtitle of host publicationFunctional Neurologic Disorders
Publication statusPublished - 17 Oct 2016

Publication series

NameHandbook of Clinical Neurology


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