March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. As a mom of children who have suffered from brain injury, as well as had personal experience with it, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. This discussion will cover injuries to the brain due to trauma, not brain issues that people are born with.
The brain certainly has a lot of responsibility for being only three pounds. It is basically the control center for the body. Messages are sent to the brain from the rest of the body and it, in turn, interprets these messages and tells the body how to respond. Essentially, how we interact with our world, and everyone and everything in it, almost entirely depends on the well-functioning of the brain. Knowing that every behaviour, sensory response, thought or overall functioning can make one realize how even a minor injury to the brain can interfere with our overall functioning.
The brain is surrounded by a spongy layer of cerebrospinal fluid and encased within a very strong and protective “shell” (skull). Together, these provide a cushion from most light impacts to the head. But when a more violent hit occurs, the brain endures damage resulting from being bounced around. This causes bleeding, swelling and bruising of brain tissue. Many times, the brain recovers from such injury without any long-term effects. In other cases, these symptoms can continue throughout the rest of an individual’s life.
Most people associate the term “head injury” with some type of external physical damage to the head, such as a “goose egg”, tenderness and/or bruising. These, although uncomfortable initially, are temporary and heal over time. However, the more severe types of head injury can result in such issues as paralysis or impaired mental functioning.
Levels of head injury and severity:
- Mild. These result from an impact to the head but there is no damage to the brain structures or functions and the individual is mildly, if at all, impaired mentally or functionally.
- Moderate. These are characterized by obvious inability to function effectively, mostly in the sensory and response areas. In the mild and moderate stages, these symptoms can be signs of a concussion.
- Severe. This is when a person is knocked out, cannot stay awake if they are not unconscious or whose functioning is impaired to the point where even the tiniest task takes tremendous effort.
Causes of Brain Injury/Trauma: In addition to strikes to the head, brain injury is also caused by strokes, tumours, anoxia (decrease in oxygen in brain tissue), hypoxia (inadequate oxygen even when blood supply is okay), toxins, degenerative diseases, near drowning and/or other conditions not necessarily caused by an external force. In terms of damage from external forces, some of the main causes are car accidents, falls, abuse, aggressive sports and other instances where the head is vulnerable. Another point to keep in mind is that such trauma can be the result of no external force at all, such as whiplash, shaking or aneurysms.
Signs of possible brain injury. Memory loss, mood swings, reduced self-awareness, confusion, exhaustion, inability to concentrate, coordination issues and changes in personality are the most common signs for concern. Unfortunately, many head injuries are not investigated as deeply as they should be as there are no real symptoms initially. However, symptoms can progress over time if no treatment is sought which can result in irreversible damage.
What can be done? All blows to the head, especially when unconsciousness or any of the above symptoms are present, should be immediately brought to the attention of a physician. The doctor will conduct screening examination and tests to determine whether further testing is needed from a specialist (neurologist). It is most helpful if the afflicted person is accompanied by another who knows them well as brain injury may cause reduced self-awareness that interferes with the patient’s ability to recognize changes in themselves. Once a neurologist is on board, a proper recovery plan will be put in place to accommodate the individual’s needs and level of severity of their injury.
The most important point to take away is that all head injuries should be a concern, whether symptoms are immediately obvious or not. Catching any sort of brain injury as soon as possible after the event will greatly reduce the symptoms and offer the best chance of a speedier recovery. After all, the brain does so much without us even being aware of it. We should, in turn, do all we can to take care of it.