Traumatic Brain Injury

What is a traumatic brain injury?

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a type of brain injury caused by a blow or jolt to, or penetration of the head. A TBI can occur during a car accident, from being tackled during a football game, or from a combat-related wound.


After a TBI, nerve cells in the brain may be damaged. The neurons may have trouble doing their job of carrying signals to different parts of the brain. If you have a brain injury, you could have trouble thinking or moving normally. Your brain may also have trouble keeping your body working properly.

Most cases of brain injury that occur each year are mild. A concussion is a minor form of brain injury. But, many TBIs can be severe. Severe brain injuries require emergency care. People with severe injuries may require a lengthy recovery period, and their symptoms can linger for a long time.

What causes a traumatc brain injury?

A TBI may occur after your head strikes an object, or when an object goes through your skull and damages your brain. Many TBIs occur during motor vehicle accidents. Falls, firearms, explosions, and assaults are other major causes.

What are the symptoms of traumatic brain injury?

TBIs can cause many symptoms, depending on their severity and which part of the brain they affect. These are possible symptoms:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Memory problems
  • Trouble thinking
  • Mood changes
  • Personality changes
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Agitation
  • Seizures
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Difficulty waking up
  • Problems with coordination
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs    

How is traumatic brain injury diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you questions about how the injury occurred and if you are having any symptoms. Your doctor will also likely want to know if you were unconscious after your injury and will ask you questions to evaluate your thought process.

Your doctor may want to do X-rays or a CT or MRI scan of your head and neck to assess the extent of the injury.

How is traumatic brain injury treated?

You may not need medical attention for a mild brain injury. For more severe cases, you should seek medical care.

If your injury is severe, you may need surgery to treat bleeding or bruising. After treatment, you may also need rehabilitation. During rehab, therapists may help you regain abilities and skills that were lost due to the injury. For example, you may need help learning to speak, move, and take care of yourself again. Social support is also an important part of rehab for you and your family.  

Can traumatic brain injury be prevented?

You can take many steps to protect yourself from a traumatic brain injury:

  • Don’t drive when you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Buckle your child into the appropriate child safety seat every time the child rides in a car. 
  • Never shake a baby.
  • Use safety gates and window guards to keep children safe from falling out of windows or down stairs.
  • Always wear a seat belt while in a vehicle. Make sure airbags are in working order in your car.
  • Wear a helmet while on a bicycle, motorcycle, or horseback. Also wear a helmet during contact sports, such as football, and when riding skates or a skateboard, or while batting during baseball or softball.
  • Take precautions to avoid falls around your home.
  • Keep firearms unloaded and locked away.
  • Never work on a ladder if you feel dizzy or lightheaded. Alcohol can make you dizzy. Some medicines also can make you dizzy or affect your balance.
  • Have your vision checked at least once a year. Poor vision can increase your risk for falls and other types of accidents.

Living with a traumatic brain injury

This type of injury may cause long-term changes. It may affect your thinking, your mood, or your ability to think, see, or hear normally. If these changes are severe enough, you may need help with your daily activities.

Protect your head. Take extra care not to do anything that could put you at risk for another head injury.

Take it slow. Get plenty of rest and take time necessary for your brain to heal. The brain is slow to recover. Also, avoid driving a car or riding a bike until your doctor approves. You may have a delayed reaction time after suffering brain injury.

Use memory aids. Use notes, a white board, alarm clocks, calendars and your mobile phone to help you remember important events or activities. Search the web for helpful memory apps you can download to your phone or computer.

Evaluate and adapt job or school tasks. Depending on your disability, your employer or school may be able to make some accommodations for you to continue work. Consider options with a flexible schedule or part time work, reduce distractions and clutter in your work area, make daily ‘To Do” lists. Take notes or ask to use a tape recorder to help you remember things. Ask for less stressful assignments that have a flexible deadline.

Get support. Consider joining a local support group or find one online. Sharing your story and learning how others manage their condition can help.

When should I call my health care provider?

Call your health care provider right away or go to the emergency room if you have any type of severe head injury or if you lose consciousness after a blow to the head. You should also seek help right away even after a mild head injury if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Headache that gets worse and does not go away
  • Weakness, numbness or decreased coordination
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Feeling very confused
  • Feeling very drowsy
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Fluid dripping from the nose or ear

These could be signs of a serious condition that needs treatment right away.

Key points

  • Traumatic brain injuries are caused by a blow or a jolt to the head. They can range from mild to severe.
  • Symptoms can range from headache, dizziness, or trouble thinking to nausea, vomiting, seizures, or loss of consciousness.
  • Severe injuries need treatment right away, which might include surgery. People with severe injuries may have a lengthy recovery period.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

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