What Being In A Coma Really Feels Like

An estimated 201 cases of coma per every 100,000 people are said to occur annually in the U.S. and the U.K., according to 2022 research published in the scientific journal Brain Communications. While differing opinions exist among experts when it comes to defining coma, it is generally characterized by a lack of awareness in which a patient is deeply unconscious and does not experience a sleep-wake cycle. In this state, a person cannot be woken up. Diabetes, head trauma, the use of certain medications, brain hemorrhage, and infections are just a few of the many potential causes of a coma (per Cleveland Clinic).

Given that a coma is a serious medical emergency, patients are in need of prompt care. Depending on the degree of brain damage, death or recovery from coma may occur within hours or it may take weeks. According to the Encyclopedia of Forensic and Legal Medicine, the sooner a person in a coma exhibits responsiveness, the better. Fifteen percent of patients who are in a coma for six hours or less reportedly recover, while recovery rates stand at 3% for those who remain in a coma for a week.

Because a person in a coma is not dead but is not conscious either, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to what it feels like for the person in this unconscious state. However, we do have some clues provided by people who have been in medically induced comas.

Being in a medically induced coma may feel like a dream

Some patients have shared their stories publicly, giving us a better idea of what it may feel like to be in a coma. "Being in a coma is like a magnified and intense version of our own dreams," Claire Wineland shared in a YouTube video first posted in 2015. In the video, she recalled her experience of being in a medically induced coma for 14 days while receiving treatment for an infection she developed while undergoing a routine procedure for cystic fibrosis. Wineland recalls being able to hear what was going on around her but felt as if it was being received through some kind of filter. Another patient, Jardine Howlett, expressed a similar dream-like experience while also in a medically induced coma (via HuffPost). 

In an interview with ABC News, neurologist Dr. Michael DeGeorgia explained that while this experience has been noted in cases of medically induced coma, it is not the same as a brain injury-related coma.

Coma type and severity determines what it feels like

Cleveland Clinic experts note that while a patient in a coma may be able to hear their surrounding environment, this will vary based on the kind of coma it is as well as its severity, which can help be determined by use of what's known as the Glasgow Coma Scale. A numerical score is determined based on three categories: eye response, motor response, and verbal response. Scores in each category range from 1 to 4, 1 to 6, and 1 to 5, respectively. In totaling the scores from each category, a patient may receive an overall score between 3 and 15. The higher the score, the more conscious a person is. A total score of 8 or below is indicative of a coma.

There are steps one can take to reduce the chances of becoming comatose. This includes reducing the risk of potential head injuries by wearing protective equipment, such as when in an automobile. Additionally, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and seeking treatment for chronic health conditions such as diabetes can all help support brain health.