Chapter 18: Confusion, Stupor, and Coma

Approach to the patient: Disorders of Consciousness

Disorders of consciousness are common; these always signify a disorder of the nervous system. Assessment should determine the level of consciousness (drowsy, stuporous, comatose) and/or content of consciousness (confusion, perseveration, hallucinations). Confusion is a lack of clarity in thinking with inattentiveness; delirium is used to describe an acute confusional state; stupor, a state in which vigorous stimuli are needed to elicit a response; coma, a condition of unresponsiveness. Pts in such states are usually seriously ill, and etiologic factors must be assessed (Tables 18-1 and 18-2).

TABLE 18-1: Common Etiologies of Delirium
Prescription medications: especially those with anticholinergic properties, narcotics, and benzodiazepines
Drugs of abuse: alcohol intoxication and alcohol withdrawal, opiates, ecstasy, LSD, GHB, PCP, ketamine, cocaine, “bath salts,” marijuana and its synthetic forms
Poisons: inhalants, carbon monoxide, ethylene glycol, pesticides
Metabolic Conditions
Electrolyte disturbances: hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia, hyponatremia, hypernatremia, hypercalcemia, hypocalcemia, hypomagnesemia
Hypothermia and hyperthermia
Pulmonary failure: hypoxemia and hypercarbia
Liver failure/hepatic encephalopathy
Renal failure/uremia
Cardiac failure
Vitamin deficiencies: B12, thiamine, folate, niacin
Dehydration and malnutrition
Systemic infections: urinary tract infections, pneumonia, skin and soft tissue infections, sepsis
CNS infections: meningitis, encephalitis, brain abscess
Endocrine Conditions
Hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism
Adrenal insufficiency
Cerebrovascular Disorders
Global hypoperfusion states
Hypertensive encephalopathy
Focal ischemic strokes and hemorrhages (rare): especially nondominant parietal and thalamic lesions
Autoimmune Disorders
CNS vasculitis
Cerebral lupus
Neurologic paraneoplastic and autoimmune encephalitis
Seizure-Related Disorders
Nonconvulsive status epilepticus
Intermittent seizures with prolonged postictal states
Neoplastic Disorders
Diffuse metastases to the brain
Gliomatosis cerebri
Carcinomatous meningitis
CNS lymphoma
Terminal end-of-life delirium
Abbreviations: CNS, central nervous system; GHB, γ-hydroxybutyrate; LSD, lysergic acid diethylamide; PCP, phencyclidine.
TABLE 18-2: Stepwise Evaluation of a Pt with Delirium
Initial Evaluation
History with special attention to medications (including over-the-counter and herbals)
General physical examination and neurologic examination
Complete blood count
Electrolyte panel including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus
Liver function tests, including albumin
Renal function tests
First-Tier Further Evaluation Guided by Initial Evaluation
Systemic infection screen
  • Urinalysis and culture
  • Chest radiograph
  • Blood cultures
Arterial blood gas
Serum and/or urine toxicology screen (perform earlier in young persons)
Brain imaging with MRI with diffusion and gadolinium (preferred) or CT
Suspected CNS infection or other inflammatory disorder: lumbar puncture after brain imaging
Suspected seizure-related etiology: electroencephalogram (EEG) (if high suspicion, should be performed immediately)
Second-Tier Further Evaluation
Vitamin levels: B12, folate, thiamine
Endocrinologic laboratories: thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and free T4; cortisol
Serum ammonia
Sedimentation rate
Autoimmune serologies: antinuclear antibodies (ANA), complement levels; p-ANCA, c-ANCA, consider paraneoplastic/autoimmune encephalitis serologies
Infectious serologies: rapid plasmin reagin (RPR); fungal and viral serologies if high suspicion; HIV antibody
Lumbar puncture (if not already performed)
Brain MRI with and without gadolinium (if not already performed)
Abbreviations: c-ANCA, cytoplasmic antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibody; CNS, central nervous system; CT, computed tomography; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; p-ANCA, perinuclear antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibody.

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