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Understanding Traumatic Brain Injury

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A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the result of a blow or jolt to the head that damages the brain.

Not all bumps on the head will result in a TBI, but all head injuries should be taken seriously.

To find out what to look for and when to see a doctor, we turned to Dr. Vernon B. Williams, director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Management at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute.

Here are 5 things he wants everybody to know about traumatic brain injury.


"Because separate areas of the brain are connected and work together to perform complex tasks, people can end up with issues in parts of the brain far from the area of impact."


1. Traumatic brain injury basics

TBIs can range from mild to severe and not all of them result in a loss of consciousness.

A fall is by far the most common cause, accounting for some 47% of TBIs. Other culprits include traffic accidents, being struck on the head by an object, and assault. 

Most TBIs are concussions, which are typically mild but must still be taken seriously, says Dr. Williams.

"Even a seemingly minor injury can cause lasting problems," he says.

2. What to look for

Common symptoms of TBI:

  • loss of consciousness
  • trouble getting up or turning over
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • balance issues
  • nausea (with or without vomiting)
  • cognitive and memory problems 

 

You might also clutch or shake your head or grimace. Changes in personality can happen too.


Read in DiscoveriesAnother Blow to Concussions


3. When to see a doctor

"Anyone who has had a blow to the head or body that results in symptoms of TBI—even temporarily—should get prompt medical attention," says Dr. Williams.

Even if you don't have symptoms, you should see a doctor if your head got hit with force.

"Because separate areas of the brain are connected and work together to perform complex tasks, people can end up with issues in parts of the brain far from the area of impact," Dr. Williams explains. 

4. What to expect at the doctor's office

When you see a doctor about a brain injury, a thorough neurological history and exam will be performed.

Dr. Williams says it should include details of the injury, such as how it happened, if you lost consciousness or had amnesia, and if you vomited or had any other symptoms.

You should be screened for problems with orientation, memory, concentration, mental processing, eye movements and balance, as well as coordination, motor, and sensory issues. In some cases, the doctor will recommend more tests, such as imaging or electrical testing.

Your personal and family history should be explored too, because some people may be predisposed to longer-lasting symptoms.

"If you've had a TBI in the past, that's relevant," says Dr. Williams. "So is a history of ADD/ADHD, learning disability, sleep disorder, migraine, mood disorder, or other neurological conditions."



5. What to expect long term after a traumatic brain injury

Every patient is unique, but anyone who's had a TBI should avoid activities that could cause another injury before they're completely healed.

Doctors also tell patients to stay hydrated, get sound and regular sleep, eat well, and follow instructions on how to manage specific symptoms.

The vast majority of people with TBI will recover in 10-14 days. 

"Only 15% of patients have lasting symptoms," says Dr. Williams, "and most of them usually had some predisposing factors. But even they can get better with the right intervention."