A medically induced coma is usually a last resort option to prevent further brain damage after a serious heart attack or cardiac arrest.

A medically induced coma is a controlled, reversible slowdown of brain function to protect the brain after a severe injury or event, such as a heart attack leading to cardiac arrest. It’s used to allow the brain to heal after it has been deprived of healthy circulation.

A doctor may also use a medically induced coma if brain damage has occurred from a car accident, drug overdose, gunshot, or other serious injury.

Heart attack recovery usually does not require as serious a step as a medically induced coma. But in some cases, particularly if cardiac arrest follows a heart attack, it may be necessary.

A medically induced coma can help the brain and the rest of the body recover more easily. It can also improve the odds of a better outcome.

This article takes a closer look at medically induced comas, including when they’re used, their benefits, and outcomes.

To induce a temporary coma, a doctor administers anesthetic drugs and puts you in a controlled, closely monitored state of unconsciousness. Your brain and metabolism still function but at a reduced level.

While in an induced coma, you are on a ventilator to maintain healthy respiration. Your medical team monitors brain wave activity with an electroencephalogram (EEG).

Targeted temperature management is also a cornerstone of post-cardiac arrest care for people who remain unresponsive after heart function has been restored.

Studies have found that keeping a person in a mild state of hyperthermia — between 89.6°F (32°C) and 96.8°F (36°C) — for 24 hours reduces swelling and damage to the brain and improves neurological outcomes.

To bring you out of the coma, a doctor slowly reduces the amount of medication you receive. This allows you to wake up gradually. When it appears you can breathe on your own, you’re taken off the ventilator.

A heart attack can reduce blood flow to the brain, potentially causing brain damage.

If the heart attack is mild or treated quickly, there are fewer risks to brain health and a medically induced coma wouldn’t be necessary.

However, a brain that has been deprived of healthy circulation for an extended time or has experienced some other type of trauma is going to work extra hard to maintain function and recover from the damage. There may be swelling and sudden, severe inflammation in the brain.

A medically induced coma can take some of that extra burden off the brain while it recovers, allowing the swelling and inflammation to ease.

By reducing the amount of extra energy certain parts of the brain need to heal, doctors can help prevent further harm to the brain.

There is no optimal time to remain in a medically induced coma. Ideally, you would be in that state for as short an amount of time as necessary to protect the brain and resume the body’s normal functions.

Unlike serious head trauma or similar injury, doctors can often effectively treat a heart attack and restore blood flow in a matter of hours.

Medically induced comas are usually limited to 72 hours, after which a doctor does a complete neurological assessment. Some people may need to remain in an induced state for a longer period.

Like any major procedure, a medically induced coma has some potential risks and complications. Most side effects, such as disorientation and sleeping difficulties, are temporary.

Some of the more serious and long-term risks can include:

  • delirium (memory problems and hallucinations)
  • seizures
  • withdrawal that affects thinking skills and mood

Because a medically induced coma after a heart attack is reversible, the outlook for a person being induced is usually better than it would be for someone who slipped into a coma from cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting.

Generally, the shorter the time a person is in a therapeutic coma, the better the chances for a positive outcome.

A medically induced coma after a heart attack is an extreme measure, but it may be necessary if the brain is at risk of severe and permanent damage.

Some lingering cognitive challenges may be present after coming out of the coma, but working closely with your healthcare team may improve your recovery.