Clinical History

Although the physician confronted with a patient whose alertness is reduced must be prepared to proceed without any external information, knowledge of the patient's history frequently provides important clues regarding the etiology of the problem and the initial approach to management. When an observer can provide the history of the present illness, immediate therapy for likely causes can be instituted. Even when only fragmentary information is available, such data allow the clinician to focus the evaluation more closely and, it is hoped, reach a diagnosis in a more timely fashion.

A history of trauma or underlying medical disease is important to establish, and a list of medications may suggest important intoxication or drug reactions. If the change in consciousness occurred suddenly, a cardiac or primary neurovascular event should be considered, whereas a subacute or slow decline in function may suggest other medical or metabolic causes. Any details on the immediate events surrounding the altered consciousness may help in isolating possible environmental factors, and knowledge of prior events of a similar nature leads the clinician to consider etiologies of a recurrent nature, like epilepsy. Particularly important information on associated medical or neurological signs that occurred just before the loss of consciousness, such as vomiting, altered speech or confusion, hemiparesis, or chest pains, are directly applicable to forming a list of possible diagnoses.

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