Brain & Nervous System Health Center

Comas Rarely Realistic in the Movies

Misrepresentation of Comas May Skew Public Perception of Illness

From the WebMD Archives

May 8, 2006 - The next time you see someone miraculously awaken from a coma at the movies, you may need to chalk it up to fiction rather than fact.

A new study shows that comas are often misrepresented in movies, and many people have a hard time telling the difference between medicine and movie magic. Researchers say that misunderstanding could create problems in making real-life decisions in dealing with comas.

Out of more than 30 movies with characters in prolonged comas, researchers found only two of the films showed a reasonably accurate representation of comas.

"We understand that making motion pictures is an art form and that entertainment is a very important component of that art form," says researcher Eelco Wijdicks, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in a news release. "But this misrepresentation in both U.S. and foreign movies is problematic. We have some concerns with using coma and awakening in comedies."

"The public has become more sophisticated in their medical knowledge and we presume they would appreciate a more accurate display of devastating neurologic injury," says Wijdicks.

A coma is an abnormal state of deep unconsciousness from which a person can't be roused. People in a coma cannot speak, do not respond to commands, and cannot make voluntary movements.

Comas may occur as the result of trauma to the head, disease such as meningitismeningitis, strokestroke, or diabetesdiabetes, or poisoning.

Taking Cinematic License With Coma

In the study, published in the journal Neurology, researchers reviewed 30 movies released from 1970 to 2004 that depicted a prolonged coma.

Accuracy of the movie's depiction of comatose patients was defined by appearance, the complexity of care, cause of coma, probability of awakening, and discussions between the doctor and family members.

The study showed comas were most often depicted as caused by a motor vehicle accident or violence (63%) and the time in a comatose state varied from days to 10 years.

Awakening from a coma occurred in 18 of the 30 movies. Researchers found awakening was often sudden with no physical or mental problems, even after a prolonged coma.

All but one of the movies showed the actors portraying coma in the "Sleeping Beauty" image of a coma patient with eyes closed and beautifully groomed, even though in reality people in comas often have their eyes open and can open their eyes in response to speech and pain.


Perception of Comas May Be Skewed by Movies

Researchers then identified 22 key scenes from 17 of the movies to show to 72 people with no medical training and surveyed them about the accuracy of the depiction of a coma.

"More than a third of the time the viewers weren't able to identify important inaccuracies in these scenes," says Wijdicks in the news release. "We are concerned that these movies can often be misinterpreted as realistic representations, especially in the wake of the Terri Schiavo tragedy and public debate."

For example, one of the comedies showed a comatose person tapping out a message in Morse code with his finger; researchers found 31% of those surveyed thought this type of behavior was possible.

More than a third of the viewers (39%) also said they would allow the cinematic portrayal of coma in these scenes to influence their decisions in real life.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 08, 2006


SOURCES: Wijdicks, E. Neurology, May 9, 2006; vol 66: pp 1300-1303. News release, American Academy of Neurology. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Houghton Mifflin, 2002. "Coma."
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