Traumatic Brain Injury Complications
Patients who have suffered traumatic brain injury are susceptible to a variety of complications. Doctors must work quickly to prevent the injury from causing further brain damage, as well as treat the existing injury. Some complications may heal with proper rest, while others may need surgical intervention. Regardless of the extent of the closed head injury or open head injury sustained, it is very important that a traumatic brain injury patient receive immediate medical attention to be properly evaluated and treated.
Complications of Mild to Moderate Traumatic Brain Injury
A patient’s risk of developing complications due to traumatic brain injury depends largely on the extent of the injury. Below are some of the most common types of complications associated with mild to moderate traumatic brain injuries.
Seizures. One of the biggest concerns for doctors treating mild to moderate traumatic brain injury patients is seizures. Because normal brain activity has been interrupted, many head injury patients suffer from seizures and convulsions, which can lead to further damage. During a seizure, a patient may hit his or her head violently and worsen the injury.
Infection and bleeding. Open head injury patients are at risk for infection and excessive bleeding, due to the breach in the skull and its membranes. The open wound is vulnerable to infection and precious brain tissue may be exposed to the environment. Meningitis, an infection of the membranes surrounding the brain, is especially detrimental and may lead to death.
Cognitive problems. Most traumatic brain injury patients will experience changes in cognition, sensory perception, communication and mental health. One of the most common cognitive disabilities is short-term memory loss; however, many patients also experience disturbances in thinking, reasoning, problem solving, judgment and attention span.
Sensory disturbances. Some traumatic brain injury patients experience ringing in the ears, blurred vision, a bitter taste in the mouth, a persistent foul smell, or impaired hand-eye coordination.
Other complications of mild to moderate traumatic brain injury include:
- Changes in personality
- Difficulty speaking
- Problems with reading and writing
In addition, patients who have sustained a concussion often experience post-concussion syndrome — a disorder in which concussion symptoms last for weeks or months after the injury.
Severe Traumatic Brain Injury Complications
Severe traumatic brain injuries lead to devastating complications.
Many patients who have sustained a severe head injury experience impaired consciousness. Doctors determine a patient’s level of consciousness using a coma scale, which tests the patient’s responses to various stimuli. Two of the more common tests used are the Glasgow Coma Scale and the Rancho Los Amigos Coma Scale. Each of the scales describe the levels of post-brain-injury cognitive function.
Patients who are unconscious and unresponsive after traumatic brain injury are at great risk of falling into a moderate vegetative state or persistent vegetative state. The longer a patient is in an impaired level of consciousness, the less chance there is of recovery.
Patients who do regain consciousness are at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, depending on the extent of the injury sustained.
Treating Traumatic Brain Injury Complications
Because traumatic brain injury patients are at risk for several complications, doctors must work quickly to prevent further brain damage. When a head injury patient is admitted to the hospital, doctors immediately unblock airways and ensure proper oxygen flow to the brain. Then, they stabilize vital signs and treat open wounds. Depending on the severity of the injury, physicians may prescribe pain medication or anti-convulsion medication to prevent seizures.
Next, head injury patients are given a variety of medical tests to determine the location and extent of the injury. In some instances, surgery is needed to accommodate brain swelling and treat increased intracranial pressure. Surgeons may also need to extract fractured skull segments and replace them with synthetic pieces.
Most traumatic brain injury patients need rehabilitation to relearn lost skills and/or address changes in mental health.
[Last revision: June 16, 2010]