Comatose TBI Patients Often Recover Consciousness During Rehab

Steve Cimino

June 15, 2021

Patients with a disorder of consciousness (DoC) following a moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) often regain consciousness and even functional independence during rehabilitation, according to a study of 3 decades of TBI survivors.

"Caution is warranted in consideration of withdrawing or withholding life-sustaining therapies in patients with severe TBI and DoC," wrote Robert G. Kowalski, MBBCh, MS, of the department of neurology at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora, and colleagues. The study was published in JAMA Neurology.

To determine the likelihood of returning to consciousness in the weeks that follow a serious brain injury, along with any notable contributing factors, the researchers launched a retrospective analysis of 17,470 patients with moderate to severe TBI. All participants had been enrolled in the Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems database from January 1989 to June 2019 after being admitted to any 1 of 23 inpatient rehabilitation centers. The cohort had a median age of 39 (interquartile range, 25-56), with 74% being male and 66% being white. Their median duration of acute hospital care was 16 days (IQR, 9-26).

Unconsciousness was defined by the researchers as not being able to follow commands or having a Glasgow Coma Scale motor score in the ED of lower than 6 or a Disability Rating Scale motor score greater than 0. Of the overall cohort, 7,547 (57%) patients initially lost consciousness and 2,058 (12%) remained unconscious as they were admitted to rehab. Of that subgroup, 1,674 (82%) recovered consciousness during rehab. The 414 patients who still had a DoC at completion of rehab had a longer median stay (37 days; IQR, 22-65), compared with the patients who recovered consciousness (19 days; IQR, 12-30; P < .001). After multivariable analysis, the factors most associated with recovery of consciousness were the absence of intraventricular hemorrhage (adjusted odds ratio, 0.678; 95% confidence interval, 0.532-0.863; P = .002) and the absence of intracranial mass effect (aOR, 0.759; 95% CI, 0.595-0.968; P = .03).

Though all patients experienced an improvement in functional status during rehabilitation, patients with DoC had an increase in median Functional Independence Measure total score from 19 to 71 while patients without DoC increased from 54 to 96 (change in total score, +43 versus +37; P = .002). After multivariate analysis, younger age and male sex were both associated with better functional outcomes during rehab and at discharge.

When It Comes to TBI Patients, Don't Give Up Hope

The choice to withdraw care in TBI patients is a complicated and daunting one, and this study is further evidence that physicians should delay that decision in many scenarios, wrote Jennifer A. Kim, MD, PhD, and Kevin N. Sheth, MD, of Yale University, New Haven, Conn., in an accompanying editorial.

"By showing that a large proportion of patients with persistent DoC recover during acute rehabilitation, this article further challenges our potential toward overly nihilistic notions of who may or may not ultimately recover consciousness long term," they added.

That said, they also recognized the questions that still persist: What are the reasons for late-stage withdrawal of lifesaving therapy? What is the recovery rate of all hospitalized patients with TBI, not just those in rehabilitation facilities? And is it possible to detect covert consciousness using MRI and electroencephalography, which this study did not include?

"Defining both good and poor prognostic risk factors is critical to portending recovery," they wrote, emphasizing the need for physicians to rely on scientifically based predictions when making such important assessments.

Patience Is a Virtue for TBI Specialists

"A lot of people write notes on hospital charts, 'poor prognosis.' You don't know, that early in the game, in the acute care setting, how TBI patients are going to do," said Jamie S. Ullman, MD, of the department of neurosurgery at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y., in an interview. "It's over the long term that we really have to judge that."

"Of course, there may be some characteristics that patients might have that may portend for a worse outcome, like brain stem damage," she added. "But in general, there is plenty of literature to suggest that not only can even the worst-looking patients have some kind of functional outcome but that it takes 18 months or more to actually realize an outcome from a traumatic brain injury."

She emphasized that each patient with TBI is unique; beyond their current status, you have to consider the significance of their injury, the thoughts of their families or partner, and their own previously stated wishes and willingness to tolerate disability. Nonetheless, this study is another step toward distilling the "nihilistic thinking" that can lead physicians to expect the worst regarding patients who may still have a path toward a functional life.

"As traumatic brain injury specialists," she said, "we need to see what we can do to give patients as good a chance as possible at a recovery."

The authors acknowledged their study's limitations, including an inability to account for 3 decades of variations in treatment regimens and its limited generalizability because of the cohort being composed of only TBI survivors admitted to inpatient rehab. In addition, they noted a possible referential bias for the study's mostly young TBI patients in rehab facilities, another reason why these findings "may not be directly applicable to the overall population of patients with moderate or severe TBI."

The study was funded by grants from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research; the Department of Health & Human Services; and the Veterans Health Administration Central Office VA TBI Model Systems Program of Research. The authors reported several potential conflicts of interest, including receiving grants and support from various government agencies and pharmaceutical companies.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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