November 30, 2022

New guidelines seek to address misdiagnosis of disorders of consciousness

Four in 10 people thought to be unconscious are actually aware.

About four in 10 people who are thought to be unconscious are actually aware, according to new clinical guidelines for disorders of consciousness published in the journal Neurology.  

The guidelines, which outline best practice for managing patients in vegetative and minimally conscious states, are the product of an extensive consultation process with members of three speciality societies — the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research.

Among its key recommendations, the document advocates for a careful evaluation of patients by a clinician with specialized training in management of disorders of consciousness, such as a neurologist or brain injury rehabilitation specialist. The evaluation should be repeated several times early in recovery—especially during the first three months after a brain injury.

“People are sometimes misdiagnosed due to underlying impairments that can mask awareness,” said guideline lead author Joseph T. Giacino, of Harvard Medical School and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. “An inaccurate diagnosis can lead to inappropriate care decisions and poor health outcomes. Misdiagnosis may result in premature or inappropriate treatment withdrawal, failure to recommend beneficial rehabilitative treatments and worse outcome”.

The article states notes that, while the prognosis of patients with prolonged disorders of consciousness differs greatly, some will eventually be able to function on their own and some will be able to go back to work. According to the guideline, approximately one in five people with severe brain injury from trauma will recover to the point that they can live at home and care for themselves without help.

New guidelines seek to address misdiagnosis of disorders of consciousness
Xavier Symons
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