Traumatic Brain Injury
What is a traumatic brain injury (TBI)?
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can range from a mild concussion to a severe head injury. It is caused by a blow to the head or body, a wound that breaks through the skull (such as from a gunshot), a fall, or another injury that jars or shakes the brain. This can cause bruising, swelling, or tearing of brain tissue.
With rest, most people fully recover from a mild brain injury. But some people who have had a severe or repeated brain injury may have long-lasting problems with movement, learning, or speaking.
What are the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury (TBI)?
Symptoms of a traumatic brain injury range from mild to severe and can last for hours, days, weeks, or even months. These symptoms may include:
- Not thinking clearly, or having trouble remembering new information.
- Having headaches, vision problems, or dizziness.
- Feeling sad, nervous, or easily angered.
- Sleeping more or less than usual.
If you develop these kinds of symptoms at any time after a head injury—even much later—call your doctor.
Complications & Comorbidities
What problems can happen after a traumatic brain injury (TBI)?
Long after the brain injury, you may still feel mental and physical effects (postconcussive syndrome), or new symptoms may develop.
They are especially common after a brain injury, even months later. You may find that your headaches evolve into chronic pain, which can make even the lightest activities difficult.
- Thinking skills.
Brain injuries can affect how well you can concentrate. It may be hard for you to learn a lot of new information all at once. You may not be able to remember things that just happened.
You may have trouble expressing yourself clearly or understanding what other people are saying. When you talk in a group of people, you might find it hard to keep up.
You may feel anxious or depressed, have rapid mood changes, or lose interest in things you used to enjoy. Your emotional ups and downs may be tied to struggles with speaking, thinking, and memory.
You may have changes in your sleep patterns, such as not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep, or sleeping much more of the time. Not getting good sleep can affect how well you recover and how severely other symptoms affect you.
- Substance use disorder.
You may use drugs or alcohol to get rid of feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress or to feel normal or accepted. If you are having problems with drugs or alcohol, treatment can help. The first step is often detoxification, along with medical care.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder.
Along with the physical damage from a brain injury, you might have long-lasting effects from the trauma of the injury. You may have fears about a loss of safety and control in your life. You may pull away from other people, work all the time, or use drugs or alcohol. It's important to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Talk to your family doctor. Or, if you're a veteran, contact your local VA hospital or Vet Center.
- Developmental problems.
In children, a brain injury, even a mild one, can interrupt the brain's development. This can have a permanent effect on a child's ability to keep up with their peers. If your child has had a head injury, call your doctor for advice on what to do.
If you find that you are feeling sad or blue or aren't enjoying the activities or hobbies that you enjoyed in the past, talk to your doctor about these feelings. You may have depression, which is common with chronic pain and other symptoms of a brain injury.
Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:
- Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
- Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.
Consider saving these numbers in your phone.
How is a traumatic brain injury (TBI) diagnosed?
The doctor will ask you questions about the injury. They may ask questions that test your ability to pay attention, learn, remember, and solve problems. The doctor will check for physical signs of a brain injury by checking your reflexes, strength, balance, coordination, and sensation. The doctor may order imaging tests such as a CT scan or an MRI to check your brain for bruising or bleeding. You may need other tests.
How is a traumatic brain injury (TBI) treated?
If your brain has been injured, you may need treatment and rehabilitation. You may need treatment right away that may include medicine, fluids, help with breathing, or surgery. Some treatment may be needed on a long-term basis. This might include:
- Physical and occupational therapy.
These kinds of therapy help you regain the ability to do daily activities and to live as independently as possible.
- Speech and language therapy.
This kind of therapy helps you with understanding and producing language, as well as organizing daily tasks and developing problem-solving methods.
Counseling helps you understand your thoughts and learn ways to cope with your feelings. This can help you feel more in control and help get you back to your life's activities.
- Social support and support groups.
These give you the chance to talk with people who are going through the same things you are. Your family or friends may be able to help you get treatment and help support you.
Medicines can help relieve symptoms like sleep problems, chronic pain, and headaches. Medicines can also help if you have anxiety, depression, or memory problems. Talk with your doctor about what medicines might be best for you.
You may need to try different types of treatment before finding the ones that help you. Your doctor can help you with this.
When to Call
Healing from a brain injury: When to call
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
- Your symptoms get worse. These include headaches, trouble concentrating, or changes in your mood.
- You have been feeling sad, depressed, or hopeless, or have lost interest in things you usually enjoy.
- You do not get better as expected.
How can you care for yourself long-term after a traumatic brain injury?
What you and your doctors can do
Different types of therapy and support may used to help you recover from a TBI. Follow the plan your doctor suggests. This may include:
- Physical and occupational therapy. These help you return to daily activities and live as independently as possible.
- Speech and language therapy. You may need help understanding and producing language. Speech and language therapists also help you organize daily tasks and develop problem-solving methods.
- Counseling. This can help you understand your thoughts and learn ways to cope with your feelings. Counseling can help you feel more in control. It can help get you back to your life's activities.
- Social support and support groups. It's important that you get the chance to talk with people who are going through the same things you are. Your family or friends may be able to support you.
- Medicines. These may help relieve symptoms like sleep problems, chronic pain, and headaches. Medicine can also help if you have anxiety, depression, or memory problems. Talk with your doctor about what medicines might be best for you. Also ask which medicines you should not take.
What you can do
Here are some ways you can help yourself:
- Get plenty of sleep, and take it easy during the day. Rest is the best way to recover.
- Don't drink alcohol or use drugs.
- Don't drive a car, ride a bike, or operate machinery until your doctor says it's okay.
- Ask your doctor when it is okay to return to sports or athletics.
- Avoid activities that are physically or mentally demanding. These include housework, exercise, schoolwork, video games, text messaging, or using the computer. You may need to change your school or work schedule for a while.
- If you feel irritable, get away from whatever is bothering you.
Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.