Originally published October 19, 2015. Updated November 21, 2023.
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can occur anytime there is a bump or blow to the head. Known as the silent epidemic, TBI is one of the least understood causes of death and disability in the United States.
In the Palmetto State alone, 61,000 people suffer with the long-term, disabling effects of brain injury, and TBI is the number one cause of accidental injury death for South Carolinians between the ages of 1 and 44.
With symptoms that can go undetected by the patient, brain injuries are frequently misdiagnosed by physicians and medical providers. If you have suffered injuries due to an accident caused by someone’s negligent or reckless conduct, you may be at risk for TBI. Being aware of the causes and symptoms of TBI can ensure you get the care you need in dealing with the long-term and potentially life-threatening ramifications of this type of injury.
Causes of Traumatic Brain Injury
The brain is one of the most vital and complex organs in the human body. Knowing the basics of how the human brain works may help you understand how even the most seemingly minor injury can result in serious long-term ramifications.
According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health, the brain is divided into three distinct sections, with each part controlling a different aspect of human behavior, movement, and cognitive awareness. These parts work separately as well as together to control and regulate everything from our heart rate and respiration to our moods and personalities. When even the tiniest part of the brain is slightly damaged or injured, it can dramatically affect any number of these processes.
Traumatic brain injuries occur as the result of a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or any type of severe whipping of the head that does damage to the brain and disrupts important brain processes. Common causes of traumatic brain injuries include:
In addition to the above, sports accidents resulting in brain injuries have become increasingly common among adults and children alike. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 200,000 children a year are injured due to sports or recreational activities. As a result, schools, sport leagues, and recreational organizations have revised their policies and developed action plans to better educate both parents and coaching staff on the dangers of brain injuries.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has signed the Student Athlete Concussion Bill, which requires school districts in our state to provide fact sheets to staff and parents. The bill also requires a medical examination and release by a physician for student athletes who suffer a head injury before they can return to play.
Signs and Symptoms of Brain Injury
The Brain Injury Association of America (BIA) is the nation’s largest and oldest nonprofit brain injury organization, with groups in states throughout the country. The South Carolina BIA chapter operates out of Chapin and works diligently to provide information and support to brain injury sufferers and their families. Brain injuries can be unpredictable, with symptoms that vary and are often hard to detect. While symptoms in mild cases often go undiagnosed, any type of brain injury can result in serious, long-term problems.
Common symptoms of mild brain injuries include:
|Headaches and confusion
||Lethargy and sleeping a lot|
|Nausea and vomiting||Intolerance of loud noises|
|Ringing in the ears||Vision difficulties; and|
|Dizziness and problems with balance||Mood swings and increased irritability|
|Lack of attention or inability to concentrate|
These symptoms may occur immediately after the injury or develop slowly over time. Either way, it is important to seek medical care. In more severe cases, symptoms are often immediately obvious, and have the potential to be life threatening and even fatal.
Symptoms of severe brain injuries include:
|Loss of consciousness||Difficulty speaking or swallowing|
|Dilated pupils||Poor physical coordination or paralysis|
|Vomiting and loss of bladder or bowel control||Slow pulse and increase in blood pressure|
|Blurred or double vision||Spinal fluid leaking from ears or nose|
If you suspect a traumatic brain injury, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital emergency room immediately.
Long-Term Effects of a Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic brain injuries can also have profound long-term effects, especially if the above initial symptoms persist.
Cognitive changes—difficulties with memory, concentration, problem-solving, and decision-making—may be spotted. Physical challenges can also endure, including headaches, dizziness, fatigue, impaired vision or hearing, motor weakness, and coordination issues.
Emotional and psychological changes are another possible long-term effect. Individuals with a TBI may experience ongoing mood swings, depression, anxiety, and personality changes, which can strain relationships and social interactions.
Additionally, there’s an increased risk of sufferers developing neurological disorders like epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease in the long run.
How Brain Injuries Go Unnoticed
Traumatic brain injuries can sometimes go undetected for a variety of reasons:
- Subtle Symptoms: In mild cases of TBI, like concussions, symptoms can be subtle or not immediately apparent. Slight confusion, mild headaches, or dizziness might not be immediately recognized as signs of a brain injury.
- Delayed Symptoms: Symptoms of a TBI can sometimes take days or even weeks to manifest. During this delay, individuals might not associate their symptoms with a previous head injury.
- Lack of Visible Injury: Unlike other injuries, TBIs often don’t have visible signs. Without obvious physical evidence like bleeding or bruising, a brain injury can be overlooked.
- Misdiagnosis or Overlooked in Medical Exams: In some cases, the symptoms of a TBI can be mistaken for other conditions, such as stress, fatigue, or even mental health issues. Also, standard imaging tests like CT scans or MRIs might not detect minor TBIs.
- Underreporting of Incidents: Individuals may not report minor head impacts or may not seek medical attention, especially in sports or certain work environments where there’s a culture of “pushing through” injuries.
It’s important to seek medical attention after any significant head impact, even if immediate symptoms seem minor, to ensure that any potential TBI is properly diagnosed and treated.
Rehabilitation and Recovery for a Traumatic Brain Injury
Rehabilitation is crucial after a TBI as it helps the brain rewire itself and regain lost functions. It typically involves working with various specialists like speech therapists, physical therapists, and occupational therapists. Common rehabilitation techniques include cognitive rehabilitation to retrain thinking skills, physical therapy to improve mobility and balance, and speech therapy to address communication problems.
Recovering from a TBI is a long process which may be improved by getting lots of rest, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising moderately, using memory aids like planners and reminders, and joining a support group. It’s also important to reduce stress and over-stimulation.
As part of this process, avoiding a subsequent, repeat TBI is critical. People with TBI should be wary of returning to normal activity too soon. Also, it’s important for sufferers to wear protective headgear for activities like cycling or other sports, use seatbelts in vehicles, have tripping hazards in the home removed, avoid drugs and alcohol, and stay away from dangerous activities in general.
Setting small, achievable goals and focusing on progress rather than perfection can keep a sufferer motivated through the ups and downs. A strong support system of family and friends is also key. Even after formal rehabilitation ends, continuing with exercises and activities that challenge the brain can help it continue to heal and adapt. Full recovery may take over a year.
Living With a Traumatic Brain Injury
A brain injury can affect every aspect of a person’s life, including the way they think, feel, act, and behave. People with TBI often need additional assistance from family members or friends during the long process of recovery. The Brain Injury Association offers the following tips for family members of people with traumatic brain injury:
- Be aware of what your loved one’s deficits are. Know their limitations, and the impairments they struggle with most
- Help them plan their home accordingly. If their memory is impaired, having notes around the house to remind them to turn off appliances, or labels to remind them of where things are kept can help them maintain a feeling of independence.
- Plan activities that give them a reason to get up in the morning. Establish a schedule to keep them from getting bored or depressed. Strive to help them have as much structure as possible in their lives to help avoid confusion or anxiety.
- Let their doctor know if any behavioral changes occur.
People with brain injuries often appear perfectly normal, yet exhibit inappropriate responses or behaviors when in public. In order to prevent problems with security, law enforcement, or medical providers, the Brain Injury Association of South Carolina recommends people with TBI print a wallet-sized brain injury survivor card that outlines their injury and is signed by their physician. This can help ensure a person with a TBI gets the care and protection they need.
Above all, be patient with a loved one who has suffered a brain injury, and encourage them to be patient with themselves. It can take many months to recover from TBI, and often these injuries are severe enough to cause permanent impairment. If you or a loved one has suffered a traumatic brain injury, contact our experienced South Carolina personal injury attorneys today.