What is a stupor?

A stupor is an altered level of consciousness in which the victim is almost completely unresponsive and usually reacts only to intense physical stimulation. People in a stupor often appear to be in a dreamlike state and usually wake up only when they are shaken vigorously, hear extremely loud sounds, or experience severe physical pain. Very similar to a stupor is a coma. The difference between the two conditions is that people in a coma will not respond to any external stimulation, no matter how intense.

The cause of stupors is usually some kind of brain damage. Large parts of the left and right sides of the brain are involved in maintaining full consciousness, as are smaller, more isolated areas. Usually, a physical disorder or one caused by drugs, alcohol, or prescription medications interferes with the proper functioning of both sides of the brain or in a specific area that controls consciousness. Common physical disorders that can lead to stupor are kidney or liver failure, an underactive thyroid gland, extremely high or low body temperature, high or low blood sugar or oxygen levels, heart conditions, and aging.

Mental illness is sometimes characterized by stupors. Psychiatrists and psychologists usually identify two types of stupors that occur in patients with mental illness: benign and malignant. They define these terms differently than when they are used to describe cancers. Benign stupors in mental patients are those that can occur and end quickly. Malignant stupors are usually those that doctors do not expect to end abruptly and project to last for considerable periods of time.

Stupor symptoms vary in number and severity with the people who have them. However, careful observation can sometimes detect them. Medical professionals generally attempt to diagnose stupors by studying a patient's breathing, muscle stiffness, and eyes.

A person in a stupor usually does not breathe normally. He or she may be breathing too fast, too slow, too deep, or irregularly. Sometimes breathing changes sharply from one condition to another. The muscles of stupor sufferers often contract and fixate in strange positions. Some victims experience muscle spasms. In others, their muscles, even their entire body, become very loose.

The appearance and movement of the eyes sometimes also offer clues to the presence of a stupor. The pupils of the eyes of patients are often very dilated and do not react to light. In others, the pupils shrink and become very small. The eyes of people in a stupor cannot even move; or, if they do, they can move very unnaturally.

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