What causes stupor? 15 possible conditions
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Stupor can be a serious mental state where people don’t respond to normal conversation. Instead, they respond only to physical stimulation, such as to pain or rubbing on their chest, which is known as a sternal rub.
Another word for stupor is “obtunded.” Stupor can be considered a very serious symptom because it’s associated with disorders like drug overdose, stroke, lack of oxygen, meningitis, or brain swelling. It’s important to seek immediate medical attention when someone shows signs of stupor.
Someone experiencing stupor can be aroused or woken up with vigorous stimulation. They may be considered unconscious, but may respond somewhat to stimuli. This is different from someone in a coma because people in a coma can’t be woken up or aroused at all.
Stupor can cause the following physical symptoms in addition to mental symptoms:
- abnormal breathing, such as breathing too slow or fast
- muscles contracted in abnormal ways
- pupils that are wider or smaller than normal
- pupils that don’t react or change with exposure to light
There can be other, disease-specific symptoms associated with stupor as well.
There are many causes of stupor, most of which are severe diseases. Examples of possible causes of stupor include:
- alcohol intoxication
- brain aneurysm
- brain tumor
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- cardiac arrest
- drug overdose
- encephalitis (brain infection)
- head injury
- hypoxia or lack of oxygen
- kidney failure
- liver failure
- respiratory arrest
- sepsis, a serious bloodstream infection
Stupor is always considered a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately if a person around you is experiencing stupor. It’s vital to get fast care in order to diagnosis the cause of stupor.
Someone with stupor is unable to provide a medical history. If a loved one or eyewitness is available, a doctor may ask about their symptoms or any relevant medical history, if available.
The next step is to do a physical examination of the person. This includes taking vital signs, such as:
- heart rate
- blood pressure
- oxygen saturation
Each of these can provide important information if the problem is related to the lungs or heart.
The doctor will evaluate how the person is breathing and any visible injuries that could be causing stupor. This includes head injuries as well as signs of bleeding on the body. The person’s posture or body positioning could also indicate stroke.
A neurological or brain examination is next. This can include testing the person’s reflexes, include pupil reflexes and light movements. The doctor may provide stimuli, including noise, pressure on the fingernails, or a sternal rub, to test their response.
The doctor might also do blood testing. This can help determine:
- blood sugar levels
- blood counts
- blood clotting
- electrolyte levels
The doctor may order an arterial blood gas (ABG) test. This test determines the pH of a person’s blood, which can indicate if too much acid or base is present and causing symptoms.
Imaging tests, especially those to view the brain, are also often conducted. An example is a computed tomography (CT) scan that doctors can use to pinpoint bleeding signs.
How someone is treated for stupor depends on the underlying cause or causes. Because the causes can range from infection to heart-related to lung-related to all of the above, stupor requires careful and fast treatment to keep the condition from worsening.
- Depression of consciousness. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.dartmouth.edu/~dons/part_2/chapter_17.html
- Rajagopal, S. (2007). Catatonia. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 13, 51-59. Retrieved from http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/aptrcpsych/13/1/51.full.pdf
- Stupor and coma. (2014, August). Retrieved from http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain_spinal_cord_and_nerve_disorders/coma_and_impaired_consciousness/stupor_and_coma.html
- Young, G. (2011). Stupor and coma in adults. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK380/
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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