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Traumatic Brain Injury Explained: Causes, Diagnosis and Treatments

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) occurs when a violent blow or jolt to the head or body causes damage to the brain. Head trauma caused by a motor vehicle crash, blasts and explosions, playing contact sports or falling and striking your head are some examples. It could also be caused by a penetrating injury, such as a gunshot wound or a shattered piece of skull caused by an impact.

Watch this video of Veterans sharing their stories of TBI, the symptoms they experienced and the treatment they received.

Service members and Veterans are at risk of brain injury from explosions experienced during combat or training exercises. Health conditions stemming from TBI can range from headaches, irritability, sleep disorders and memory problems, to slower thinking, depression and anxiety. These health issues can lead to long-term mental and physical health problems that can undermine Veterans’ employment, personal relationships and overall quality of life. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides medical and rehabilitation services to Veterans and Service members with TBI. Many types of professionals at VA offer treatments that have proven to be very effective for most people.

Different Types of TBI and Associated Symptoms

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies brain injuries as mild and moderate to severe. A mild TBI is also referred to as a concussion, and most TBIs diagnosed each year are in this category. Even though the effects of a mild TBI are not life-threatening, they can be serious and require medical care. The symptoms are different for each person and can sometimes be difficult to attribute to brain injury because they can be similar to other health conditions. Mild TBI and concussion symptoms may include:

  • Attention or concentration problems
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Sleeping less than usual, more than usual or having trouble falling asleep
  • Dizziness or balance problems
  • Oversensitivity to light or noise
  • Headaches
  • Vision problems
  • Problems with short- or long-term memory
  • Irritability or easily angered

Most moderate to severe TBIs are caused by falls and firearm-related injuries and are linked to thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year. People with moderate to severe TBI may need long-term or life-long care for health problems that affect all aspects of their life. For those who survive the initial brain injury, many remain disabled and are more susceptible to having seizures and contracting pneumonia and other infections. Some of the symptoms of moderate to severe TBI include:

  • Difficulty understanding and thinking clearly
  • Weakness in arms and legs
  • Feeling more emotional than usual
  • Personality changes
  • Trouble communicating and learning skills
  • Problems with coordination and balance
  • Problems with hearing and vision
  • Changes in sensory perception, such as touch

Treatment and Outcomes for TBI

man holding his headPeople with mild brain injuries usually require no treatment other than rest and over-the-counter pain medication if they have a headache. However, they still need to be monitored closely for any persistent or worsening symptoms. Taking a break from work or school, driving, playing sports or exercising and limiting screen time and loud music are typical recommendations for recovery. When symptoms are milder or nearly gone, it’s OK to slowly return to normal activities.

The treatment and outcome for those with moderate to severe TBI is highly individualized depending on a variety of factors, such as the extent of brain damage, age, general health before the injury, access to specialized TBI care and family or other social support network. Surgery is sometimes necessary to remove or repair ruptured blood vessels or bruised brain tissue or to minimize the possibility of further tissue damage. Most people who have had a significant brain injury will require rehabilitation and may need to relearn basic skills, such as walking or talking.

TBI Screening for Veterans

All Veterans enrolled in VA health care are screened for TBI if they served in combat. Due to improved diagnostics and increased vigilance, VA is able to reach more Veterans with TBI and provide them with state-of-the-art clinical care and educational programs. More than 185,000 Veterans enrolled in VA health care have been diagnosed with a TBI. Learn more about TBI care at VA, and explore resources and connected care options.

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