Could There Be A Simpler GCS?

The Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) has been around forever. Or really, for about 45 years. It was actually developed in the early 1970s and known as the Coma Index. It was further refined into the GCS, when 1 was selected as the minimum component score. Ever since, it has been used as a common language among clinicians to communicate gross neurologic function and trends.

But it is still somewhat complicated. Oh no it’s not, you say? Then why do so many trauma resuscitation rooms have it posted on the wall? There are three components, each with a different number of possible values. And frankly, some are harder to remember than others. Decerebrate vs decorticate, right?

So what if someone told you that a single GCS component works just about as well as the whole bunch? Researchers have been piecing this together for years, focusing on the motor component of GCS (mGCS). There are two flavors of simplified score: mGCS and Simplified Motor Score (SMS). The mGCS is just what it sounds like: the full motor component of GCS, ranging from 1-6. The SMS is further simplified from the mGCS: mGCS of 1-4 tranlsates to SMS 0, mGCS 5 = SMS 1, and mGCS 6 = SMS 2. In my opinion, this is actually more complicated because you have to remember not only the 6 mGCS levels, but also the cutoffs to convert it to SMS.

Finally, a group from Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland performed a nice meta-analysis of the best individual studies.

Here are the factoids:

  • Only papers that compared total GCS (tGCS) to mGCS or SMS were included, and only if they analyzed a receiving operator characteristic curve. The statistics appeared sound.
  • tGCS was very slightly better than either mGCS or SMS at predicting:
    • in-hospital mortality
    • neurosurgical intervention
    • emergency intubation
    • severe TBI

Bottom line: Overall, the total GCS is slightly (just a few percent) better at doing the things listed above, compared to the motor score alone or the “simplified” (really?) motor score. Is this clinically significant in the field? Probably not. And its mere simplicity makes it appealing. 

However, there is one major problem to adopting the mGCS for use outside the hospital. Inertia. As I mentioned, we have been using the full GCS score for almost 50 years. Pretty much every trauma professional is familiar with the GCS or knows where to look up the details. But I suspect that those clincicians who assume care of the patient once in the hospital, and especially the intensive care unit (neurosurgeons) will never allow the use of an abbreviated scale. Good idea, but sorry, it won’t catch on in the real world.

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