Disorders of consciousness are powerful predictors of outcomes including mortality among critically ill patients. Encephalopathy, delirium, and coma are disorders of consciousness frequently encountered by critical care nurses but often classified incorrectly.


To provide a greater understanding of disorders of consciousness and to provide standardized assessments and nursing interventions for these disorders.


A literature search was conducted by using the terms consciousness, mental status, awareness, arousal, wakefulness, assessment, disorders of consciousness, delirium, encephalopathy, coma, vegetative state, and minimal consciousness. Articles were published in the past 10 years in CINAHL and PubMed. Articles were excluded if they were not in English or directly related to caring for patients with a disorder of consciousness. The remaining 142 articles were evaluated for inclusion; 81 articles received full review.


A disorder of consciousness signifies that the threshold for compensation has been surpassed with potentially irreversible damage. Altered thalamocortical interactions and reduced cortical activity impair communication networks across the various parts of the brain, causing a disturbance in consciousness.


The cue-response theory is a model that describes the process and impact of nursing care on recovery from acute brain injury. Appropriate standardized assessments and interventions must be used to manage altered levels of consciousness in critically ill patients.


Paying close attention to neurological changes and monitoring them with standardized assessments are critical to implementing early measures to prevent complications.

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