Understanding Traumatic Brain Injury

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

The brain controls everything you do — from involuntary functions, such as temperature regulation and breathing, to personality and learning. When an injury to the brain occurs, the results may be complex and unpredictable.

But there’s more. “It is also essential to understand a traumatic brain injury does not just affect the patient,” says Dawn Osterweil, Ph.D., ABPP, a private practice psychologist and former director of rehabilitation neuropsychology at California Regional Rehabilitation Center in San Francisco. “The entire family is impacted.”

For patients, families and caregivers, understanding more about brain injuries is the first step in learning how to cope.  

Brain Injury Causes and Symptoms

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about three traumatic brain injuries occur every minute in the United States. Common causes of traumatic brain injuries are falls, motor vehicle accidents and assaults, particularly due to sudden force to the head. Damage to the cells, tissue and blood vessels may occur as a result.

Brain injuries may range from mild, such as a concussion, to severe and life threatening. Symptoms of a traumatic brain injury vary greatly depending on the severity and area of the brain injured. According to the Brain Injury Association of America, some possible symptoms of a traumatic brain injury may include the following:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Balance difficulties
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • Coma (in severe cases)

Rehab for Different Types of Brain Injuries

In many instances, rehabilitation can play a vital part in recovery and improving quality of life. The extent of services needed may depend on the type of brain injury a person has.

“Adults with traumatic brain injuries frequently have cognitive, physical and neuropsychiatric impairments, which are best addressed by a team of rehabilitation professionals,” said Dr. Deborah Doherty, M.D., director of the Brain Injury Program at Kentfield Rehabilitation & Specialty Hospital in Kentfield, California.

Rehabilitation specialists often include physical, occupational and speech therapists. Neuropsychologists, social workers and vocational specialists may also play an important role in a patient’s recovery.

Depending on the extent of the traumatic brain injury, rehab may involve relearning the basics, such as walking and talking. In some cases, it may mean learning new ways of doing things. Recovery can take months, years or even be a lifelong process. 

“Although it varies, a large percentage of the recovery following a traumatic brain injury occurs within the first year after the injury,” says Dr. Doherty. "However, there is growing evidence that some patients continue to demonstrate a degree of improvement even years after their injuries.”  

Family Plays a Vital Role in Brain Injury Recovery

From the initial injury to the recovery process, families are significantly involved in helping a loved one with a traumatic brain injury. “In the initial aftermath of a brain injury, depending on the severity, the best way to help a loved one is to be the voice for the injured person,” said Dr. Osterweil. “This means seeking out the best available medical options and remaining a steady and visible force as you help your loved one navigate through the rehabilitation process.”

Although patients recovering from a brain injury may need support in different ways, there are a few general things family members can do in order to help their loved one. For example, providing structure, avoiding overstimulation and offering encouragement are all helpful.

Brain injuries may cause cognitive deficits, loss of independence and personality changes, which may alter relationships. Depending on the extent of the brain injury, life may not be the same for the patient or family. Adjusting to the changes may be a challenge for everyone, but there is often hope. “It’s helpful to remember [that] trauma brings devastation, but it can also bring new insights, meaning and a deep sense of purpose as people learn to live with a brain injury,” says Dr. Osterweil.

Next Steps

  • Think prevention. Young children, individuals who are 15 to 24 years old and those over age 65 tend to get traumatic brain injuries more than other groups. Though you can’t live in a defensive bubble, there are several methods to help protect yourself and your family. For example, always wear a helmet when biking and a seatbelt when in the car, and encourage others to do the same. Be aware of fall hazards for children and seniors, too.
  • Get checked out. If you or a family member sustains a blow to the head, it’s better to err on the safe side and see a doctor.

For Family Caregivers

  • Find ways to stay connected. “Brain injuries can alter relationships, but it’s critical for families to identify ways to stay connected with their loved one,” says Dr. Osterweil.
  • Consider seeing a clinical neuropsychologist. This type of doctor can help you learn what to expect and how to cope with the changes.
  • Don’t do it alone. Not only does your loved need support, but as a caregiver, you do too. Contact your state’s chapter of the Brain Injury Association of America for a list of resources in your area. 

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