Treating disorders of consciousness 

There's no treatment that will ensure a person will recover from a state of impaired consciousness, but steps can be taken to increase their chances of a natural improvement.

This usually involves:

  • providing nutritional support through a feeding tube
  • making sure the person is regularly moved so they don't develop pressure ulcers
  • gently exercising their joints to prevent them becoming tight
  • keeping their skin clean
  • managing their bowel and bladder – for example, using a tube known as a catheter to drain the bladder
  • keeping their teeth and mouth clean

Attempts will also be made to reduce the chances of infection, which can be dangerous for someone in a state of impaired consciousness.

Sensory stimulation

A treatment called sensory stimulation may help increase responsiveness in some people with impaired consciousness.

It involves stimulating some of the main senses – touch, hearing, vision and smell – for a short time each day. It's usually carried out by a trained specialist, but family members are often encouraged to be involved.

Some examples of sensory stimulation include:

  • visual – showing photos of friends and family, or a favourite film
  • hearing – talking or playing a favourite song
  • smell – putting flowers in the room or spraying a favourite perfume
  • touch – holding their hand or stroking their skin with different fabrics

It's not entirely clear how effective sensory stimulation is, but it's sometimes considered worthwhile.


There are a few reported cases where certain types of medication helped a person recover from a disorder of consciousness or improved their condition.

Research is continuing into exactly how these medications might work and whether they're helpful. These medications are usually grouped into either:

  • CNS stimulants
  • CNS depressants

Withdrawing nutritional support

If a person has stabilised in a minimally conscious state for a minimum of 12 months, it may be recommended that nutritional support is withdrawn.

This is because:

  • there's almost no chance of a recovery by this point
  • prolonging life would have no benefit for the person concerned
  • prolonging treatment could offer false hope and cause unnecessary emotional distress for the friends and family of the person concerned

The medical team will discuss the issue with family members, but the decision has to be referred to the courts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland before any further action can be taken. In Scotland a court ruling isn't required, but is often sought.

If the court agrees with the decision, a palliative care team will usually be involved in planning the withdrawal. Once nutritional support is eventually withdrawn, the person will die within a few days or weeks.

Page last reviewed: 23/09/2015

Next review due: 23/09/2017