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What is Disorientation?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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There are many medical conditions that list disorientation as a possible symptom. While most people assume they know what this means, when asked to describe it, they actually describe symptoms of confusion instead. It thus makes sense to have a clear definition of what disorientation is. It is impaired knowledge of where the self is in relationship to directional surroundings or failure to be able to identify self, present time, or present day. From a medical standpoint, the latter definition tends to be the most important.

Relationship to directional surroundings could have an extreme impact on health. One thing of concern in aviation is spatial disorientation, which may occur when a plane or other machine being flown goes into complicated moves that confuse a pilot to the point where he/she no longer understands relationship of plane to ground. Overcoming this is essential or it can risk the pilot’s life, posing an indirect medical threat to anyone on the plane.

In most cases, though, disorientation in the medical sense more directly refers to people exhibiting the symptoms of not knowing where they are, who they are, or what time or date it is. This may happen for a number of reasons. It would be difficult to list all medical disorders where this can occur or where this state of mind is a feature of the illness.

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It is fairly easy to guess that many illnesses causing disorientation create direct effects on the brain and represent brain injury. State of mind could be affected, for instance, by traumatic brain injury in the form of concussion. People who suffer strokes or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs or mini-strokes) may initially exhibit this symptom. Another potential cause is a brain tumor or degenerative disorders affecting the brain like Alzheimer’s disease. Swelling in the brain from conditions like meningitis or encephalitis might potentially result in this lack of awareness too, and seizures could cause it momentarily.

Other illnesses that might result in disorientation include a variety of mental health conditions. Panic or anxiety attacks could result in it occurring, usually in transient form. Any form of delusional state, as occurring from things like schizophrenia or post traumatic stress disorder, may include this symptom, too. Additional causes of disorientation include heat stroke, very low glucose levels (hypoglycemia), severe anemia, poisoning, intentional overdose on certain medications, and negative reaction to normal doses of some medications.

One of the most difficult things about disorientation is that people who have it may not remember where to go to get help. It falls on others to notice if a person appears disoriented and to get that person medical help immediately. Some people have a brief period where they feel disoriented and then seem fine. It is extremely important that people do not dismiss this symptom as a benign thing that won’t reoccur. They should get medical help right away, calling emergency services instead of driving to a hospital, to get the medical attention they need.

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anon932644
Post 2

I am often in a fog. But what you described happens to me sometimes.

anon133425
Post 1

Yesterday I was driving and all of a sudden I had no idea where I was. I stopped by two gas stations to ask for directions in a city I was born and raised in and nothing they said made sense. I drove around for almost two hours horrified.

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