After your loved one emerges from a coma, they will most likely experience a state of disorientation called post-traumatic amnesia.
Post-traumatic amnesia is one of the many effects of traumatic brain injury a person can experience, and is a normal part of the brain’s healing process.
Still, this stage can be very distressing for family and friends to witness.
That’s why we are answering all your questions about post-traumatic amnesia.
We also offer some helpful guidelines on what you can do to support your loved one during this difficult time.
What Is Post-Traumatic Amnesia?
Post-traumatic amnesia refers to the period after a brain injury when the brain can’t form any new short-term memories.
It is characterized a state of confusion and disorientation regarding place, time, and person.
It involves both retrograde amnesia (memory of past events) and anterograde amnesia (the ability to form new memories).
In other words, the person has no memory of where they are or how they got there, and they have no continuous memory of day-to-day events.
While most of the time post-traumatic amnesia happens after a person wakes up from a coma or state of unconsciousness, it is possible for someone to experience it without ever having been unconscious.
This period of post-traumatic amnesia corresponds to level 4 on the brain injury recovery scale.
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Amnesia
A person with post-traumatic amnesia will have no memory of the present time or their injury, and will usually be unable to process the fact that they had an injury.
They cannot plan ahead or initiate actions, and if they are able to speak, they will probably ask the same question several times because they forgot the answer.
While in post-traumatic amnesia, a person can forget close family members and friends, and will sometimes think of the hospital staff as their family at first.
They can also forget their own identity or think they are much younger than their real age.
The person with post-traumatic amnesia can also exhibit uncharacteristically violent behavior, such as shouting, swearing, and physical aggression. They often make inappropriate or rude remarks, and can act as though they are prisoners trying to escape.
On the other hand, the person could also become quiet and extremely friendly, even childlike and clinging. Sometimes they will alternate between both extremes.
Family members and friends should try to be patient and remain calm when they witness this behavior. Remember your loved one is not in control of their actions right now.
How Long Does Post-Traumatic Amnesia Last?
Post-traumatic amnesia can last anywhere from a few hours to several weeks, sometimes even months.
There are several studies that suggest that the longer post-traumatic amnesia lasts, the more severe a person’s disability after injury will be. However, these findings are not definitive.
In general, the length of time a person experiences post-traumatic amnesia correlates with the length of time they were in a coma.
Meaning, the longer the person is unconscious, the longer they will have memory problems, though it also depends on the severity of their head injury.
Are There Any Ways to Treat Post-Traumatic Amnesia?
Post-traumatic amnesia is a stage nearly all traumatic brain injury patients go through as they recover.
Unfortunately, there are currently no ways to shorten or eliminate it, you just have to allow the brain time to heal.
As painful as it can be to have your loved one not recognize you and see them acting unlike themselves, it’s important to remember that this is only a temporary phase, and their memory of you will eventually return.
With that said, here are a few guidelines for family and friends of a person suffering from post-traumatic amnesia.
- Always identify yourself. Whenever you enter your loved one’s room, be sure to tell them who you are. Remember that their short-term memory is not fully functional, so even if you only left for a few minutes, they will still need to be reminded. This will help keep them from becoming agitated or scared.
- Ask before touching them. In the first few days after they wake up, the person with amnesia will probably not like being touched. Always ask them if you can hold their hand before doing so, and if they say no, don’t push it.
- Stay calm. If your loved one sees other people acting distressed, it can add to the confusion and frustration they are already experiencing and make the situation much worse. In addition, too much stimulation can overload their already struggling brain and make recovery more difficult, so try to keep their room as quiet and calm as possible.
- Be patient. Don’t try to make the person remember anything, and try not to correct any of their false beliefs. For example, if they think the year is 1987, don’t tell them they are wrong, as this will only cause them more distress and make them act out. Eventually their brain will heal enough to let them remember more information, but until then it’s better to just let them be.
- Allow time for yourself. It’s important to give yourself time to rest and not exhaust yourself. While it’s normal to feel like you can’t leave your loved one’s side, taking a break allows you to have the energy to support them in their recovery.
Finally, always remember that your loved one is not fully conscious right now and should not be held responsible for anything they do or say during this stage.
Even though they seem awake, for the person experiencing post-traumatic amnesia, it is more like they are trapped in a bad dream.
So as challenging as it can be at times, don’t take any of their hurtful words or actions personally.
As time passes, your loved one will eventually regain control over their behavior and will start to remember again.
When that happens, they will need you there to help them on the long recovery journey ahead.