I was reading about the recent horrific I-95 bus crash when I came across a sentence that made me realize how much I dislike the way newspapers and TV journalists use the word "shock".

I should explain: This feeling comes from my remembrance of vaguely hearing or reading somewhere that "going into shock" has a very precise use in medicine, to wit, that it is a term having to deal with the rapid loss of blood pressure, or an extreme infection, or something or the other that is at the very least scientifically quantifiable. But often I find that journalists and reporters seem to conflate what I remember to be that precise medical term with the ordinary English sense of the word "shock", as in stunned or left speechless. In the above article, for example, a doctor describes the driver, who almost singularly amongst the survivors was not left dead or critically injured -- hence could not have suffered much blood loss? -- as being "[put] into shock." Even if that story isn't directly applicable here, I have seen plenty of stories describing unharmed witnesses of some huge tragedy as "going into shock", as opposed to say, being described as "shell-shocked", a word that I think is more apt.

Am I remembering what I heard correctly? Is the article using the term "shock" in a medically kosher sense? Is it a precise term, or a "catch-all" that can be used by doctors and journalists alike?

  • Well, there aren't any other words to describe it, so I suppose it's reasonable to assume it's an "official" term...
    – bcc32
    Commented Mar 13, 2011 at 4:33
  • @bcc32 I gave another word to describe it -- three of them in fact. "Stunned." "Speechless." "Shell-shocked."
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 13, 2011 at 5:14
  • TV guys live from making shocking news. Shocking, isn't it. Though, in their defense, one has to say that they are not medical professionals, so they cannot really be expected to know what shocking bull they're spreading when they use the S word with every person remotely involved in any kind of traumatizing event. I wouldn't put too much importance on the terminology there, because you really can't expect them to know.
    – dm.skt
    Commented Mar 13, 2011 at 17:35
  • 1
    "the driver, who almost singularly amongst the survivors was not left dead" - are we to take it that most of the other survivors were dead?
    – Ian
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 10:56
  • @Ian While it was dumb of the journalist to write "survivors... not left dead or critically injured" rather than just "survivors... not critically injured", it's also rather disingenuous to use that selective quotation. Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 11:02

1 Answer 1


There are two medical conditions referred to as shock.

One, which might be the "very precise use in medicine" you are referring to, is circulatory shock, which is how the human body reacts to an extreme loss of blood flow. It can be caused by heart problems, infections, allergic reactions, and several other conditions. Symptoms include anxiety, chest pain, excessive sweating, and unconsciousness. It is a very serious condition which requires immediate medical attention.

The other, emotional shock, is more accurately referred to as an acute stress reaction. It happens soon after a traumatic event and presents symptoms of panic including excessive heart rates and sweating, a disassociation or "stupor", and even amnesia. It typically only lasts a few days at most.

While I'm sure even medical professionals just say shock casually, they are usually specific: for instance using anaphylactic shock for circulatory shock caused by an allergic reaction. Nonetheless, the term shock is correct in both the medical and English sense for both conditions. But since it is so unspecific, one has to figure out from context which is being referred to.

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