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Do you know the signs of a brain injury?

When we hear about a brain injury, we usually think of damage from a car accident or a serious fall or even an injury from sports. But there are other brain injuries that don’t come from a blow to the head.

Because March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, this is a good time to talk about the different kinds of brain injuries, how they can impact our lives and the symptoms to look for if you suspect someone has had a brain injury.

First, a few definitions:

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an alteration in brain function or other evidence of brain pathology caused by external force – basically, a blow to the head. Causes could be a fall, assault, car accident, sports injury or gunshot wound. Even violent head-shaking can cause a traumatic injury to your brain.

Non-traumatic or acquired brain injury usually results from an illness rather than an external impact to the head. The causes of these brain injuries could be stroke, cancer or tumors, aneurysm, infection or lack of oxygen to the brain from near-drowning.

Concussions – the most common type of brain injury – would usually be considered a mild brain injury. Still, a concussion can cause substantial impairments that can last for the rest of your life. And repeated concussions, often by athletes or people in the military, can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE.

CTE is the condition you’ve probably heard about in the news from NFL players who spent years tackling and being tackled on the field. CTE causes the brain to gradually deteriorate and over time. The brain can even lose mass. This results in memory loss, impulsive behavior, poor judgment, aggression toward others, depression and dementia.

Any brain injury could cause permanent, irreversible damage. And you don’t have to fracture your skull to injure your brain. A concussion happens when your head and brain move back and forth suddenly. This can cause your brain to bounce around inside your skull, or even twist.

Yes, concussions are considered mild brain injuries, but they are still serious. It wasn’t long ago that “getting your bell rung” while playing football was considered a rite of passage for children. You might’ve felt dazed for a while, but the effects seemed to wear off, and you ended up with a good story to tell. But a concussion – or worse, a series of them over time – is nothing to be ignored.

Fortunately, our society has become more aware of just how dangerous concussions can be. Today they are treated with the urgency they require.

TBI by the numbers

The CDC notes some sobering statistics related to traumatic brain injuries in the US:

  • There were 223,135 TBI-related hospitalizations in 2019.
  • There were 64,362 TBI-related deaths in 2020.
  • People 75 years and older had the highest numbers and rates of TBI-related hospitalization and death.
  • Males were nearly two times more likely to be hospitalized and three times more likely to die from a TBI.
  • Children (birth to 17 years old) had 16,070 TBI-related hospitalizations in 2019 and 2,774 TBI-related deaths in 2020.

Symptoms of brain injury

How do you know if you or someone else has a brain injury? There are some symptoms you can look for:

  • Loss of consciousness, from a few minutes up to several hours
  • A headache that won’t go away or gets worse over time
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Dilated pupils, in one or both eyes
  • Inability to wake up from sleeping
  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion and difficulty concentrating

If you see any of these conditions in yourself or someone else, consult a medical professional as soon as possible. To diagnose a brain injury, doctors may use one or more tests to assess potential physical injuries, brain and nerve functioning and level of consciousness.

Treating brain injuries

Treatment would depend on the severity of the injury. Mild traumatic brain injury doesn’t usually require treatment other than rest and over-the-counter pain relievers. Still, a person with mild traumatic brain injury should be monitored closely at home for any persistent or worsening symptoms.

For moderate or severe brain injuries, emergency care focuses on making sure the person has enough oxygen and blood supply, maintaining blood pressure and preventing any further head or neck injury.

Most people with a significant brain injury will require rehabilitation. They might need to relearn basic skills like walking or talking. The ultimate goal is to improve capabilities to perform daily activities. Therapy often begins in the hospital acute setting. It often continues at an inpatient or rehabilitation unit, a residential facility or through outpatient services.

To state the obvious, your head is a pretty important part of your body. Don’t ignore the signs of a potential brain injury.

Anuradha Rao-Patel, MD
Anuradha Rao-Patel, MD

Medical Director

Anuradha Rao-Patel, MD, is a medical director at Blue Cross NC. She 'ss responsible for the evaluation of the medical necessity, appropriateness and efficiency of the use of health care services, procedures, prescription drugs and facilities under the provisions of the applicable health benefits plan.

Before joining Blue Cross NC, she worked in a private practice doing acute and chronic pain management.

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