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What Is Insulin Coma Therapy?

By C.B. Fox
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Insulin coma therapy was a treatment for psychotic disorders that was used from the 1920s through the middle of the 20th century. Though it was not as effective as other treatments, such as electroshock therapy, that were available at the same time, it was often used when patients did not respond to the other treatments. A coma was induced through the administration of insulin and then reversed by administering glucose. Though the treatment was dangerous, the lack of safe treatments often led doctors to decide that the possible benefits outweighed the risks.

Treatment with insulin coma therapy was conducted within a medical facility under the close observation of medical professionals. The entire process was designed to take only a few hours, with the patient in a coma for only about an hour. There was a risk of serious brain damage or death associated with this treatment.

An insulin coma could be induced by flooding the patient’s system with insulin, resulting in a severe drop in blood sugar. The patient would go through a number of different stages during insulin coma therapy, the first of which was a state of pre-coma in which the patient was still partially conscious and often aware enough to interact with doctors and nurses. Patients might experience sweating and drooling during this time or the skin could remain dry and hot. In either case, the patient developed a high fever and an increase in heart rate along with a drop in blood pressure. Jerking motions and, occasionally, seizures were experienced by many patients in the pre-coma stage.

The patient would then go through three stages of coma during which time they were not responsive to external stimulus. Body temperature would continue to rise, and the patient would lose higher brain function. In most cases, the patient was brought out of the coma after about an hour. Fifteen minutes or so after the glucose was administered to stop the coma, the patient would regain normal function.

In some cases, one treatment with insulin coma therapy was enough to return a patient with a psychotic disorder to a relatively normal emotional and psychological state. Patients were sometimes released soon after the therapy and could remain well for the rest of their lives. Though most patients did not experience long term benefits from insulin coma therapy, it was at least partially effective in many cases.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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