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What is a traumatic brain injury?
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is any sudden damage to your head. It can occur from a strong or violent strike to your head. This can cause your brain to bump against the inside of your skull. Common TBIs, such as concussions, can happen during motor vehicle or sports accidents. They also can occur when an object, like a bullet or piece of skull, pierces your brain.
Symptoms of a traumatic brain injury
For a mild injury, it’s normal to feel dizzy, nauseous, or have a headache. Other mild symptoms include:
- ringing in your ears
- neck pain
- blurry vision
- slow reflexes
- loss of consciousness.
In addition to these symptoms, moderate or severe TBIs may include:
- lasting nausea or vomiting
- lasting headache
- dilated (larger than normal) pupils
- trouble waking up, walking, or speaking
- slurred speech
- weakness or numbness in your arms or legs
- drainage of bloody or clear fluids from your ears or nose
Mild symptoms go away after a few days or weeks. Worse TBIs can have lasting effects. Your mood can change, making you feel angry, anxious, or sensitive. Short-term memory can be affected, as well as your ability to think and focus. You may have trouble controlling your impulses.
Traumatic brain injuries are serious. They cause damage that can be permanent. In some cases, a traumatic brain injury can lead to coma or death. Always seek medical care if you have hit your head. If your symptoms are severe, call 911 or go to the emergency room. Contact a doctor if someone you know has a head injury and acts strange.
What causes a traumatic brain injury?
There are different types of traumatic brain injuries.
- A concussion occurs from a hard fall or hit to the head. It jars your brain and causes shock or trauma. Most of the time you don’t lose consciousness. You may feel dazed and off balance. You also may have brief decreased vision or memory.
- A brain contusion is a bruise of the brain. It causes bleeding in your brain and swelling. The bruise is not always visible on your skin.
- A skull fracture is when the skull cracks. Sometimes broken bones cut into your brain and cause bleeding or other damage.
- An intracranial hematoma is bleeding inside the skull that collects and clots. A mass of clotted blood forms between your brain and skull. It may not show up for a few days, or even weeks.
- A facial (or scalp) hematoma is bleeding outside the skull that collects and clots. It often forms a firm lump on your forehead or scalp. A black eye is another type of hematoma. It forms when there is bleeding under the skin around your eye. These hematomas can look bad, but usually heal without lasting damage.
How is a traumatic brain injury diagnosed?
Your doctor will perform a neurological exam. They will ask you questions about the injury and symptoms. They also will test your physical and mental reflexes. The exam helps your doctor determine how severe your brain injury is. You may need other tests, such as an X-ray, computerized tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These tests take pictures of your head and brain. They show if there is a skull fracture or bleeding, bruising, or blood clots in your brain.
Can a traumatic brain injury be prevented or avoided?
There are some things you can do to lower your risk for a TBI. You should:
- wear a seatbelt in the car
- wear a helmet in sports and activities, like biking, skating, horse riding, and skiing and snowboarding
- avoid dangerous sports and activities
- use child car seats correctly.
Traumatic brain injury treatment
Treatment for TBI depends on the type, location, and severity of the injury. To start, your doctor will stabilize your injury. This involves getting oxygen to your brain and body, maintaining blood flow, and managing blood pressure. These precautions help prevent further damage.
For a mild injury, you should rest from normal activity. Over-the-counter pain medicine can help relieve headaches and neck pain. Your specific symptoms also play a role in treatment. Medicine can help reduce the number of seizures you’re having. Botulinum toxin injections help relax your muscles to decrease spasms.
More severe cases may require surgery and/or therapy. A surgeon can repair a skull fracture, remove blood clots, or relieve pressure. Occupational therapy helps you regain skills you forgot from your injury. This includes walking, eating, or dressing. Physical therapy consists of stretching, strengthening, and training exercises. It helps with muscle range and coordination. You may also need speech therapy if your injury affected being able to talk.
Living with a traumatic brain injury
Some traumatic brain injuries have lasting effects, and some do not. You may be left with disabilities. These can be physical, behavioral, communicative, and/or mental. Customized treatment helps you to have as full and normal a life as possible. A severe TBI can cause you to be in a short- or long-term coma.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Could I have a traumatic brain injury and not know it?
- For a mild TBI, how long before I can return to my daily routine?
- Does a traumatic brain injury cause permanent brain damage?
- Can you recommend a support group for people who have traumatic brain injuries?