Traumatic Brain Injury

A Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) occurs when the head experiences a forceful bump, blow, or jolt, or when an object pierces the skull and enters the brain. It’s important to note that not every blow or jolt to the head results in a TBI. Whether caused by a penetrating injury like a gunshot wound or a non-penetrating incident such as a head impact in a car accident, TBIs are diverse in their origins.

These injuries vary in severity, with some individuals recovering within days, while more severe cases can lead to permanent brain damage or, tragically, result in death. Understanding the intricacies of traumatic brain injuries is crucial for effective prevention, timely diagnosis, and successful rehabilitation. In this article, we will delve into the different aspects of TBI, exploring its causes, diagnosis, treatment, and the impact it has on individuals across various age groups.

Types of Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) manifest in different types, each presenting unique challenges and characteristics. Understanding these distinctions is vital for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. The two primary types of TBI are:

Closed Brain Injury

Closed brain injuries occur without any break in the skull. They result from nonpenetrating injuries to the brain, typically caused by rapid forward or backward movements and shaking of the brain within the bony skull. This movement leads to bruising and tearing of brain tissue and blood vessels. Closed brain injuries commonly stem from events like car accidents, falls, sports-related incidents, and tragically, shaking a baby can also result in this type of injury, known as shaken baby syndrome.

Penetrating Brain Injury

Penetrating, or open head injuries, occur when there is a break in the skull, allowing an external object to enter the brain. This can happen in instances such as gunshot wounds, where a bullet pierces through the skull, causing direct trauma to the brain. Penetrating brain injuries often result in distinct challenges due to the direct impact on brain tissue and surrounding structures.


Young woman lying on the couch with a headache

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

Physical Symptoms

  • Headache: A common sign, individuals may experience persistent headaches.
  • Nausea or Vomiting: Some may feel nauseous or exhibit vomiting.
  • Fatigue or Drowsiness: Excessive tiredness or drowsiness may occur.
  • Speech Problems: Difficulties in speech may manifest.
  • Dizziness or Loss of Balance: Sensations of dizziness or difficulty maintaining balance.

Sensory Symptoms

  • Blurred Vision: Vision may become unclear.
  • Ringing in the Ears: Individuals might perceive a ringing or buzzing sound.
  • Altered Taste or Smell: Changes in the ability to taste or smell may occur.
  • Sensitivity to Light or Sound: Increased sensitivity to light or sound.

Cognitive, Behavioral, or Mental Symptoms

  • Loss of Consciousness: Ranging from a few seconds to minutes.
  • Dazed or Confused State: Individuals may be disoriented or in a state of confusion.
  • Memory or Concentration Problems: Difficulty remembering or concentrating.
  • Mood Changes or Swings: Emotional changes, including feelings of depression or anxiety.
  • Difficulty Sleeping: Individuals may experience disruptions in their sleep patterns.
  • Excessive Sleep: Some may find themselves sleeping more than usual.

Moderate to Severe Traumatic Brain Injuries

In addition to the symptoms of mild injury, moderate to severe TBIs may exhibit the following:

Woman about to vomit in bed

Physical Symptoms

  • Extended Loss of Consciousness: From several minutes to hours.
  • Persistent or Worsening Headache: Headaches may become more severe or persistent.
  • Repeated Vomiting: Persistent vomiting or nausea.
  • Convulsions or Seizures: Seizure activity may occur.
  • Pupil Dilation: One or both pupils of the eyes may dilate.
  • Clear Fluids Draining: Fluids may drain from the nose or ears.
  • Inability to Awaken: Difficulty waking from sleep.
  • Weakness or Numbness: In fingers and toes.
  • Loss of Coordination: Impaired coordination and motor skills.

Cognitive or Mental Symptoms

  • Profound Confusion: A state of extreme confusion may arise.
  • Agitation or Combativeness: Unusual behavioral changes, including combativeness.
  • Slurred Speech: Speech may become slurred.
  • Coma and Disorders of Consciousness: Severe cases may lead to a coma or other consciousness disorders.

Children’s Symptoms

Recognizing TBI symptoms in children can be challenging, but parents and caregivers should be vigilant for:

  • Change in Eating or Nursing Habits: Alterations in feeding or nursing behaviors.
  • Irritability: Unusual or easily irritable behavior.
  • Persistent Crying: Consistent crying with difficulty in being consoled.
  • Attention Changes: Altered ability to pay attention.
  • Sleep Habit Changes: Shifts in sleep patterns.
  • Seizures: Seizure activity may be observed.
  • Mood Changes: A child may exhibit signs of sadness or depression.
  • Drowsiness: Unusual sleepiness in the child.
  • Loss of Interest: Decreased interest in favorite toys or activities.
Woman carrying her crying child
Old man falling on the ground with his crane and eyeglasses


Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) can result from various causes, each contributing to changes in chemical and energy use in the brain as a compensatory mechanism for the injury. These changes, often triggered by violent and forceful impacts to the head, may lead to symptoms such as headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, and confusion. While mild TBIs may see short-lived changes without permanent brain damage, severe injuries can have prolonged effects, causing damage to brain cells and contributing to brain swelling.

These are the top causes of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs):

  • Falls
  • Falls account for nearly half of all emergency department visits for TBIs. Individuals aged 65 and older, as well as children under 17, are particularly susceptible to fall-related traumatic brain injuries.
  • Domestic Violence, Assaults, Child Abuse, and Shaken Baby Syndrome
  • Intentional acts of violence, including domestic violence, assaults, child abuse, and shaken baby syndrome, can result in traumatic brain injuries. The deliberate nature of these actions makes them significant contributors to TBI cases.
  • Gunshot Wounds, Including Attempted Suicides
  • Gunshot wounds, whether intentional or as a result of attempted suicides, can lead to severe traumatic brain injuries. The penetration of the skull by a projectile causes direct trauma to the brain, often with lasting consequences.
  • Motor Vehicle Accidents
  • Motor vehicle accidents, including car crashes and collisions, are frequent causes of traumatic brain injuries. The force generated during these incidents can subject the head to impactful forces, leading to varying degrees of TBI.
  • Sports, Recreational, Work, or Military Injuries
  • Traumatic brain injuries can occur in various contexts, including sports, recreational activities, work-related incidents, and military service. High-impact events in these settings may result in head injuries, causing TBIs with diverse implications for individuals involved.
Doctor pointing a brain scan result

Diagnosis and Tests

Diagnosing a traumatic brain injury (TBI) involves a comprehensive assessment by healthcare professionals to understand the extent and nature of the injury. The diagnostic process includes the following components:

Neurological Evaluation

Conducted by a neurologist, a specialist in the brain, a neurological evaluation assesses various aspects of brain function. This includes an examination of memory, cognitive abilities, motor function (including balance, reflexes, and coordination), and sensory functions such as hearing and vision. The goal is to gauge the impact of the injury on different aspects of the patient’s neurological health.

Imaging Tests

To visualize and identify potential abnormalities in the brain, imaging tests are often employed. Both CT (computed tomography) scans and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) are utilized to check for brain bleeding and swelling. These tests provide detailed images that aid in diagnosing the severity and specific characteristics of the traumatic brain injury.

Blood Test

An innovative tool in TBI diagnosis is the Banyan Brain Trauma Indicator™ (BTI). This blood test searches for specific proteins indicative of concussion or mild TBI. The results help healthcare providers to corroborate clinical observations and imaging findings, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of the injury’s impact on the brain.

The combination of these diagnostic approaches enables healthcare professionals to make informed decisions regarding the severity of the traumatic brain injury and formulate an appropriate treatment plan tailored to the individual needs of the patient.

Management and Treatment

The approach to managing and treating Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) depends on various factors, including the size, severity, and location of the brain injury. These elements significantly influence the treatment strategy and the potential speed of recovery. Here’s a breakdown of the management and treatment approaches for different levels of TBI

A doctor holding a human brain

Mild TBI

For individuals with mild TBI, such as a concussion, treatment typically involves:

  • Rest and Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers
  • Many individuals may not require extensive treatment but rather rest and the use of over-the-counter pain relievers for symptom relief.
  • Brain Rest
  • A focus on “brain rest” is crucial, allowing the brain to recover without unnecessary cognitive strain.
  • Monitoring by Healthcare Practitioners
  • Regular monitoring by healthcare practitioners is essential to track any progression or development of new symptoms.
  • Special Consideration for Children and Teens
  • In the case of sports-related concussions in children and teens, immediate cessation of play is advised. Return to play should only occur under the approval of a concussion injury specialist.

Medications may include:

  • Over-the-counter or prescribed pain medicines
  • Anticonvulsant drugs to treat seizures
  • Anticoagulants to prevent blood clots
  • Diuretics to help reduce fluid buildup and pressure in the brain
  • Stimulants to increase alertness
  • Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to address mood changes

Severe TBI

Immediate treatment for severe TBI focuses on preventing immediate threats to life and stabilizing vital organ functions. This includes:

  • Preventing Death and Stabilization
  • Prioritizing actions to prevent death, stabilize the spinal cord, heart, lung, and other vital organs, and ensuring proper oxygen delivery and breathing.
  • Emergency Surgery
  • Emergency surgical procedures may be necessary to address issues such as relieving pressure inside the skull, removing debris or dead brain tissue (especially in penetrating TBI), and repairing skull fractures.

In-hospital strategies for managing severe TBI aim to prevent conditions including:

  • Infection, particularly pneumonia
  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clots that occur deep within a vein; risk increases during long periods of inactivity)

Additional considerations for severe TBI management:

  • Nutritional Supplements:
  • Some individuals may require nutritional supplements to address potential deficiencies.
  • Rehabilitation:
  • After the acute care period, individuals often transition to a rehabilitation center where a multidisciplinary team facilitates recovery.

Rehabilitation includes:

  • Neurological, Nursing, Psychological, and Nutritional Support:
  • A team comprising neurologists, nurses, psychologists, nutritionists, as well as physical, occupational, vocational, speech, and respiratory therapists.
  • Cognitive Rehabilitation Therapy (CRT):
  • Individualized training programs to improve cognitive, physical, occupational, and emotional abilities. CRT helps individuals regain normal brain function and develop compensatory strategies.
Medical doctor supporting an old man

Factors influencing recovery

  • Genetics:
  • Genetic factors, such as apolipoprotein E ε4 (ApoE4), may impact recovery speed. ApoE4, associated with higher risks for Alzheimer’s disease, is linked to worse health outcomes post-TBI.
  • Age:
  • Studies suggest that age plays a critical role in recovery, with older adults likely to experience less complete recovery compared to younger adults with the same TBI severity. Further research is needed to tailor treatment strategies based on age-related considerations.
Model of a brain with a helmet and a ball


Preventing Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) is paramount, and various measures can significantly reduce the risk of sustaining a head injury. Unlike many neurological disorders, TBIs are largely preventable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following actions to minimize the occurrence of TBIs:

  • Seatbelt Usage:
  • Always wear a seatbelt when driving or riding in a motor vehicle. Proper seatbelt use is a fundamental measure to prevent head injuries during accidents.
  • Helmet Safety:
  • Wear the appropriate helmet and ensure it fits correctly when engaging in activities such as bicycling, skateboarding, or participating in sports like hockey and football. Helmets provide crucial protection against head injuries.
  • Home Safety Measures:
  • Install window guards and stair safety gates at home, especially for households with young children. These measures prevent accidental falls and subsequent head injuries.
  • Safe Driving Practices:
  • Never drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Impaired driving significantly increases the risk of accidents and potential head injuries.
  • Home Environment Modification:
  • Improve lighting at home and eliminate potential tripping hazards in hallways, such as rugs and clutter. Creating a safer home environment reduces the likelihood of accidental falls.
  • Fall Prevention for Older Adults:
  • Utilize nonslip mats and install grab bars next to toilets and in tubs or showers for older adults. Handrails on stairways also contribute to fall prevention, reducing the risk of head injuries.
  • Physical Activity for Strength and Balance:
  • Engage in a regular physical activity program to enhance balance and strength. Maintaining physical fitness is crucial for preventing accidental falls and associated head injuries.
  • Safe Playground Surfaces:
  • Ensure that children’s playgrounds are constructed with shock-absorbing materials like hardwood mulch or sand. This provides a cushioned surface, minimizing the impact of falls and reducing the risk of head injuries.

When to See a Doctor

It’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional under specific circumstances to ensure prompt and appropriate care for potential traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Consider the following guidelines on when to see a doctor:

Woman with a headache and a doctor with a laptop wit an xray result
  • Blow to the Head or Body:
  • Seek medical attention if you or your child has experienced a significant blow to the head or body that raises concerns or results in behavioral changes.
  • Signs or Symptoms of TBI:
  • If there are any signs or symptoms of traumatic brain injury, it’s imperative to seek emergency medical care. These symptoms may manifest following a recent blow or other traumatic injury to the head.
  • Severity of Injury:
  • The terms “mild,” “moderate,” and “severe” are used to categorize the impact of the injury on brain function. Even a mild injury necessitates prompt attention and an accurate diagnosis, as any level of brain injury can have significant implications for overall health and well-being.


Traumatic brain injuries result from forceful impacts to the head or body, such as those sustained in falls, car accidents, sports-related incidents, and violence.

Diagnosis involves a neurological evaluation, imaging tests like CT scans or MRIs, and blood tests, including the Banyan Brain Trauma Indicator™ to detect specific proteins indicative of TBI.

Symptoms include headaches, nausea, drowsiness, speech problems, sensory issues (blurred vision, sensitivity to light/sound), and cognitive or mood changes.

Treatment involves rest, over-the-counter pain relievers, and monitoring by healthcare practitioners. Children with sports-related concussions should cease play immediately.

Yes, even mild TBIs require prompt attention. Though termed “mild,” they can have lasting effects, making an accurate diagnosis crucial for appropriate care and management.