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Brain Injuries: Unraveling the Causes and Symptoms – A Comprehensive Guide

Brain injuries are complex and multifaceted, affecting millions of individuals worldwide. These injuries can result from various causes such as traumatic incidents like car accidents and falls, or nontraumatic events like strokes and aneurysm ruptures. Regardless of the cause, brain injuries can lead to significant impairments and changes in a person’s life, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. To better understand and address these challenging conditions, it is crucial to delve into the underlying causes and symptoms of brain injuries.

Types of Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) occur when a sudden external force damages the brain, either from a violent blow or jolt to the head or an object penetrating the brain tissue. Even whiplash injuries without direct head trauma can cause brain injury. Differing in severity, TBIs can have lifelong consequences on a person’s cognitive, physical, emotional, and metabolic well-being. On the other hand, nontraumatic brain injuries arise from internal factors such as medical conditions, infections, near drownings, exposure to toxins, etc. These acquired brain injuries can be equally devastating and require prompt diagnosis and treatment to minimize adverse outcomes.

Identifying and understanding the signs and symptoms of brain injuries is a crucial step in obtaining appropriate care and support. Some common symptoms include confusion, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and changes in mood or behavior. However, symptoms can vary significantly depending on the type and severity of the injury, necessitating a comprehensive approach to diagnosis and management. By staying informed and aware of the causes and symptoms of brain injuries, individuals and their families can take essential steps towards recovery and the best possible quality of life.

Causes of Brain Injuries

Physical and Traumatic Causes

Physical and traumatic causes of brain injuries often result from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body. One common example is a concussion, which occurs when an outside force, such as a head injury during sports, doesn’t penetrate the skull but causes injury and brain swelling 1. Other examples of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) include:

  • Falls: Slip and falls, especially in older adults, can cause TBIs 2.
  • Sports injuries: High-contact sports like football, rugby, or hockey may result in head injuries and concussions 3.
  • Shaken baby syndrome: Violently shaking a baby can cause brain damage, particularly in young children 4.
  • Violence: Physical altercations or abuse may result in head injuries 5.
  • Whiplash: Concussions and more severe brain injuries can be caused due to the brain being shaken about in the intracranial space.

In some cases, an object that goes through brain tissue, such as a bullet or shattered piece of skull, may also cause a traumatic brain injury6.

Non-Traumatic Causes

Non-traumatic brain injuries, on the other hand, occur due to internal factors or medical conditions. Some common non-traumatic causes include:

  • Stroke: Interruption of blood flow to the brain due to a blocked or burst blood vessel can lead to brain damage7.
  • Cardiac events: Heart attacks can cause a loss of oxygen to the brain resulting in anoxic brain injury.
  • Tumors: The growth of an abnormal mass in the brain may cause pressure on surrounding brain tissue, resulting in damage 8.
  • Infections: Bacterial or viral infections, such as meningitis, can lead to inflammation and harm the brain 9.
  • Seizures: Repeated or prolonged seizures may result in brain damage, particularly if not properly managed10.
  • Alcohol: Excessive alcohol consumption can cause brain damage, particularly when sustained over an extended period11.
  • Near fatal drownings: Can starve the brain of oxygen leading to profound injury.

It is essential to recognize the various potential causes of brain injuries and ensure proper prevention strategies are in place to help mitigate these risks.

Classification and Severity of Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a disruption of the normal function or structure of the brain caused by a head impact or external force1. TBI can be classified into three main categories based on their severity: mild, moderate, and severe2. The severity of a brain injury can be determined using the Glasgow Coma Scale3, which takes into account a person’s ability to follow directions, move their eyes and limbs, and the coherence of their speech.

Mild Brain Injury

A mild brain injury, also known as a concussion, usually results in a brief change in mental state or consciousness. Symptoms may include:

  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Sensitivity to light and noise

Most people with mild brain injuries recover completely with appropriate treatment, but in some cases, they may develop post-concussion syndrome, which may cause long-term symptoms.

At APEX Brain Centers we take an “active recovery” approach to concussions, rather than the more common and largely ineffective “wait and see” approach prescribed by most clinicians; including many concussion experts.

Moderate Brain Injury

Moderate brain injuries are generally more severe than mild brain injuries and may lead to longer-lasting symptoms and potential disabilities. Symptoms may include:

  • Loss of consciousness (lasting a few minutes up to 24 hours)
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood and behavior changes
  • Sensitivity to light and noise

These symptoms may persist for weeks or months, and rehabilitation is necessary for a full recovery.

Severe Brain Injury

Severe brain injuries can result in long-term disabilities or even be life-threatening. This type of brain injury often leads to coma or a vegetative state, and may cause:

  • Severe cognitive impairment
  • Communication difficulties
  • Motor function impairment
  • Hydrocephalus (accumulation of fluid in the brain)
  • Seizures
  • Inability to eat/breathe independently

Significant medical intervention and long-term rehabilitation is necessary for individuals with severe brain injuries, and, in some cases, full recovery may not be possible.

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Signs and Symptoms

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can manifest a wide variety of symptoms depending on the severity and location of the injury. Some common symptoms that may be experienced include:

  • Headache: A persistent headache is often one of the first indicators of a brain injury. This could range from mild to severe and may be accompanied by pressure in the head.
  • Vision changes: Blurred or double vision may result from a TBI, along with unequal pupil size or dilation.
  • Speech and communication difficulties: Slurred speech or difficulty finding the right words can indicate a brain injury.
  • Balance and coordination problems: A TBI may cause loss of balance, dizziness, or difficulty coordinating movements.
  • Nausea and vomiting: These symptoms are common in the early stages of a brain injury and may be accompanied by dizziness.

Some additional symptoms that could suggest a more severe TBI include:

  • Loss of consciousness, ranging from brief to prolonged periods
  • Memory problems, such as amnesia or difficulty forming new memories
  • Emotional changes, including depression, anxiety, irritability, or even sudden mood swings
  • Cognitive difficulties, which may affect thinking, decision-making, or problem-solving abilities
  • Numbness or weakness in the limbs
  • Seizures or convulsions

Furthermore, individuals with TBIs might also experience sensory disturbances, such as changes in the sense of smell or taste. Issues with fatigue and sleep disruption, as well as gut dysfunction and metabolic distress are also common following a brain injury.

It is important to note that symptoms of a brain injury can appear immediately or may take days, or even weeks to emerge. It is crucial to seek medical attention if any of these symptoms are experienced following a head injury. Early diagnosis and intervention can greatly improve recovery outcomes in cases of traumatic brain injury.

Complications and Long-Term Effects

Traumatic brain injuries usually result from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body, or from an object, such as a bullet or shattered piece of skull, that penetrates brain tissue 1. Brain cells can be temporarily affected, and damage can range from mild to severe.

Immediately after a brain injury, some individuals experience medical complications like seizures, nerve damage, blood clots, narrowing of blood vessels, stroke, coma, and infections in the brain 2. Various issues may persist, including post-concussion symptoms, emotional difficulties, cognitive impairment, and functional limitations 3.

One specific type of traumatic brain injury is diffuse axonal injury (DAI), which involves the tearing of the brain’s long connecting nerve fibers (axons) as the brain shifts and rotates inside the skull. DAI commonly causes coma and injuries to different parts of the brain 4. Imaging, such as MRI and CT scans, can be used to assess and diagnose the extent of DAI and other brain injuries.

Long-term consequences of traumatic brain injuries can include:

  • Cognitive impairments: Problems with memory, concentration, and reasoning
  • Movement-related issues: Challenges with balance, coordination, and muscle strength
  • Emotional and behavioral changes: Increased irritability, impulsiveness, or aggression
  • Sensory problems: Difficulty with vision, hearing or balance due to damage in the brainstem or associated nerves and brain regions
  • Communication problems: Trouble with speech, comprehension, or expressing thoughts

Recovery from brain injuries can vary greatly from one individual to another, with some people recovering fully while others may experience long-lasting disabilities. Factors affecting recovery include the severity of the injury, the location of the damage in the brain, the extent of bruising or tissue damage within the brain, and pre-existing health status of the patient.

Proper medical care, rehabilitation, and support systems can significantly improve outcomes for individuals living with the long-term effects of brain injuries. However, prevention of such injuries remains the best way to avoid complications and lifelong disability.

Diagnosis and Evaluation

Diagnosing a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), typically in a hospital setting, begins with a thorough assessment of the patient’s medical history and a physical/neurological examination. In severe TBI, the doctor will evaluate the patient’s level of consciousness using the Glasgow Coma Scale, which measures their ability to open their eyes, respond verbally, and move their body. A score is assigned, with a lower score indicating a more severe injury.

Imaging tests are essential in the evaluation of brain injuries. A CT scan is often the initial imaging test used, as it can quickly reveal fractures, hematomas, or contusions in the skull or brain tissue. It can also detect cerebral edema, which is swelling inside the skull. A CT scan helps doctors assess the severity of the injury and determine the appropriate course of treatment.

An MRI may also be used to provide a more detailed view of the brain’s structures. It can reveal subtle changes in the brain tissue and identify small areas of damage not seen on a CT scan, allowing for a more accurate diagnosis. However, an MRI is typically reserved for cases where there is a need for further assessment or when the patient’s condition allows for a longer and less urgent diagnostic procedure.

During the evaluation process, doctors may also consider the cause of the injury, whether it was due to a forceful bump, blow, or jolt to the head or body, or from an object that pierces the skull and enters the brain. This information helps guide the medical team’s understanding of the injury and the potential for complications or secondary injuries.

In less severe brain injuries not requiring hospitalization, such as concussion, evaluation is typically performed in a non-emergent setting. Functional neurologists, neurologists, orthopedic specialists and others are the customary providers performing these evaluations. Full history, neurological examination, testing of visual and balance systems, cognitive testing, EEG, and other tests included in our Day of Discovery at APEX Brain Centers should be the gold standard for diagnosis and direction of effective treatment strategies for those that have suffered concussion; and for those with more severe brain injuries that have moved past the acute (hospital) phase of care.

In conclusion, the diagnosis and evaluation of brain injuries involve a combination of thorough medical and functional neurological assessment, consciousness evaluation using the Glasgow Coma Scale in severe brain injury cases, and imaging tests such as CT scans and MRIs. This comprehensive approach ensures that patients receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment for their specific brain injury..

Treatment and Rehabilitation

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) requires a comprehensive approach to treatment and rehabilitation. The main goal of treatment is to prevent further injury and promote recovery. Initially in the acute stage, providers focus on stabilizing the patient’s condition by ensuring adequate oxygen supply and maintaining appropriate fluid levels in the brain to prevent swelling and infection.

Once the patient is stable, the acute phase rehabilitation process begins. This process is tailored to the individual’s unique needs and can involve different therapies, which aim to help the patient regain lost skills and abilities. A significant component of rehabilitation is physical therapy, which addresses movement problems and helps improve muscle strength and coordination 1.

Occupational therapy plays an essential role in helping the patient manage daily activities, such as dressing, eating, and grooming. Speech therapy may also be necessary for individuals who have experienced communication and swallowing difficulties as a result of the brain injury 2.

In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage symptoms such as headaches, mood disorders, and muscle spasms. This helps to improve the patient’s quality of life as they undergo rehabilitation 3.

Patients with severe TBIs may require surgery to alleviate pressure on the brain or repair skull fractures. In certain instances, additional surgeries may be necessary to address related complications, such as infections or blood clots 4.

In the sub-acute and chronic phases of care, functional neurologists have earned their place as one of the most important providers in these key stages; where most have been told there is little room for improvement. Functional neurologists employ numerous progressive therapeutic strategies to build on what the initial acute care providers have accomplished. This marriage of services ensures one is able to maximize their potential after any type of brain injury.

Throughout the rehabilitation process, mental and emotional support plays a crucial role in a patient’s recovery. Therapy can help patients and their families cope with the challenges presented by the brain injury, adapt to new life circumstances, and develop strategies to improve their overall wellbeing 5.

In conclusion, the treatment and rehabilitation for brain injuries are multifaceted and require personalized, long-term care. By combining various therapeutic approaches and appropriate medication, patients have the best chance of regaining their independence and living a fulfilling life after a brain injury.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common causes of traumatic brain injuries?

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) usually result from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body, or whiplash injury. An object that penetrates brain tissue, such as a bullet or shattered piece of skull, can also cause TBI. Common causes of TBI include falls, car accidents, sports injuries, and physical assaults source.

How long after a head injury can symptoms appear?

Symptoms of a brain injury may appear immediately or may surface over time, depending on the severity and location of the injury. Some symptoms might not appear until hours or even days after the injury. It’s important to monitor the affected individual and seek medical attention if symptoms worsen or new symptoms appear source.

What are the key symptoms of a serious brain injury?

Some key symptoms of a serious brain injury may include severe headaches, repeated aggressive vomiting, seizures, weakness or numbness in extremities, loss of coordination, visual abnormalities, and slurred speech. Additionally, cognitive and emotional symptoms might include confusion, agitation, mood changes, and memory or concentration problems source.

Can the brain recover after a mild brain injury?

The brain has the ability to recover after a mild brain injury, although the recovery process might be slow and incomplete in rare cases. Factors such as the severity of the injury, age, and general health of the individual may influence how well and how quickly the brain recovers. Rehabilitation, including functional neurology, physical therapy, and cognitive therapy, will help improve recovery source.

What are different types of traumatic brain injuries?

There are several types of traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions, contusions, penetrating injuries, and diffuse axonal injuries. Concussions occur due to a sudden impact to the head and whiplash injuries, contusions are bruises on the brain tissue, penetrating injuries involve objects that enter brain tissue, and diffuse axonal injuries involve widespread damage throughout the brain source.

Can a head injury have delayed symptoms?

Yes, a head injury may have delayed symptoms. Some symptoms might not manifest immediately and may develop over time, possibly hours or days after the injury. It is crucial to monitor the person closely and seek medical attention if symptoms worsen or new symptoms arise source.


  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/brain-damage ↩ ↩234
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/traumatic-brain-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20378557 ↩ ↩234
  3. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/traumatic-brain-injury ↩ ↩234
  4. https://www.webmd.com/brain/brain-damage-symptoms-causes-treatments ↩ ↩23
  5. https://www.verywellhealth.com/brain-damage-5509392 ↩ ↩2
  6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/traumatic-brain-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20378557
  7. https://www.stroke.org/en/about-stroke/types-of-stroke
  8. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/brain-tumor/symptoms-causes/syc-20350084
  9. https://www.healthline.com/health/meningitis
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2018676/
  11. https://www.alcohol.org/effects/brain-damage/

Dr. Michael S. Trayford is a Board Certified Chiropractic Neurologist and Neurofeedback Specialist with over 20 years of experience in the practice of advanced functional neurology. He is one of the most highly sought-after brain rehabilitation specialists because of the life-changing outcomes his patients consistently experience. After over a decade in private practice and working alongside other pioneers in the field, Dr. Trayford developed his multimodal intensive brain training and rehabilitation program built around the science of Neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to learn and grow dependent upon the stimulation it receives from its environment. He later founded APEX Brain Centers to combine his ground-breaking rehabilitation approach with a unique patient and caretaker-centered care model. Under Dr. Trayford’s leadership, APEX Brain Centers has successfully treated thousands of patients and earned the reputation of a world-renowned brain training and rehabilitation practice. Since its inception, Dr. Trayford has been a leader of the Brain Training revolution treating patients worldwide. In addition, he is a published journal contributor and international lecturer. His experience with various patients of all ages and neurological conditions has given him a unique perspective on brain health and human performance. He is also well-versed in collaborating with other health care professionals, making him an invaluable asset to any care team. Dr. Trayford was awarded the Functional Neurologist of the Year distinction by the International Association of Functional Neurology and Rehabilitation, where he is a proud member and conference lecturer. Currently, he serves on the Advisory Council for the Dementia Society of America and the Board of Directors for the International Society for Neuroregulation and Research. He is also a servant leader who has dedicated his adult life to serving multiple communities through Rotary International and other notable causes. When he’s not treating patients, Dr. Trayford usually reads or researches anything related to the brain, human performance, and leadership. He also loves spending time outdoors with his wife Denise, their two daughters, and dogs in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina. https://www.linkedin.com/in/drmichaeltrayford/

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