Complications from a brain injury are as complex as the brain itself, extending to various parts of the body, mind, and personality.
Some symptoms may be present immediately following the traumatic incident, while others may reveal themselves days or weeks later. While the list below is does not nearly represent all of the syndromes someone might experience after a brain injury, it does give a snapshot of how complex brain injuries can be.
After a brain injury, many individuals find themselves experiencing headaches. While the reasoning for this is as diverse as the injuries themselves, it is a common outcome for many people with this diagnosis. The severity of headache pain can vary for each individual and may last on a long-term or short-term basis. People who experience headaches post-injury have what is known as “secondary headaches,” which means they are the result of another condition. Treatment for secondary headaches varies upon each person’s circumstances, but physicians often use similar strategies they would employ when treating primary headaches (a primary headache is one that is not caused by any other condition).
Not everyone experiences seizures following a brain injury. However, for individuals who experience a seizure within two to seven days after their traumatic incident, the likelihood that they will experience more is significantly increased. Some people don’t experience seizures until years after their injury. Doctors have yet to definitively conclude who will experience seizures, but the manner in which a brain injury happened can sometimes predict the likelihood of one happening. For example, people with significant physical damage to their brain tissue, such as a penetrating injury, may be more likely to experience seizures. Physicians typically manage seizures through pharmaceutical intervention.
Spasticity is a condition where an individual’s muscles are continually contracted, prohibiting him or her to move the affected area voluntarily. The brain has many neurons – cell pathways – that serve as a line of communication between the brain and the nerves, glands, and muscles. When these pathways are damaged, the line of communication is severed and spasticity can result, causing a person’s body or posture to be very rigid or inflexible. A person whose hand is in a constant fist is experiencing spasticity. The treatment for spasticity depends on the severity of the condition. Therapies such as physical therapy and occupational therapy can address spasticity using a variety of tools such as ultrasound, biofeedback, orthotics, splints, and other therapeutic adaptations.
In mild and some severe injuries, challenges to the vestibular system – a person’s balance center – can bring problems of dizziness, nausea, and visual disturbances. Interventions from physical therapy can minimize, and in some cases, resolve these problems through a short course of therapy and exercise.
While it usually seems straightforward, falling asleep takes a complex series of chemical and physical processes in the brain in order to occur. Depending on the location, type, and severity of the trauma, some people with brain injury may find themselves struggling with establishing regular sleep patterns or having the ability to sleep at all. Other factors such as depression, pain, disruption of routines, and medications can also contribute to sleep disorders after brain injury. Once the root cause of a person’s sleeplessness is determined, treatment will most likely involve structured sleep/wake routines, exercise, and nutrition. Pharmaceutical intervention may also be considered.
It is common to experience some level of cognitive impairment following a brain injury. Thinking, attention, concentration, problem-solving; these are all functions that take place in the brain. A neuro-psychiatric evaluation is a specialized tool used by most rehabilitation doctors and psychologists to better understand and identify areas where cognition has been negatively affected. Once this information has been determined, doctors prescribe one, or in most cases, several forms of therapy designed to improve cognitive levels. This can include the assistance of physical, occupational, or speech therapists as well as psychologists and psychiatrists.
Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, irritability, and avoidance in people with brain injury is not uncommon. Mood can not only be affected as a result of trauma to the brain itself, but secondary problems such as pain, isolation, and coming to terms with one’s injury can impact someone’s mental health. For people vulnerable to depressive episodes prior to their injury, or for those who previously struggled with substance abuse issues, the chances of experiencing mood disorders post-injury is significantly increased. Typically, treatment involves counseling and support for activity engagement as well as pharmaceutical intervention until mood is stabilized, followed by strategies designed to promote self-management of problematic symptoms.
Change in a person’s behavior following a brain injury is common and can often be one of the largest obstacles during rehabilitation. Aggressiveness, explosive outbursts, repetitive thoughts or actions, lack of enthusiasm or concern for others; all can be the result of trauma to the brain. These behaviors can often cause a wedge between relationships and can be difficult for family and friends to understand. A person experiencing personality changes or negative behaviors will benefit from a treatment team of professionals experienced in neurobehavioral patterns.