What are some of the most common TBI side effects?
To answer this question, and to help you prepare for the challenges you might face after your injury, we’ve created this ultimate guide to TBI side effects.
We will cover both the acute and long-term effects of traumatic brain injury, plus give you some tips on the best way to treat them.
Finally, we will also give you our best advice to help lessen their overall impact on your life should these side effects still appear.
TBI Side Effects
A TBI produces both acute and chronic problems.
The acute effects of TBI usually appear immediately, but with the right therapy interventions these also often fade after a few months.
Chronic effects appear much later, are more difficult to treat, and usually last much longer.
We will cover the more immediate TBI side effects first.
Acute TBI Side Effects
The following are some of the problems you may face immediately after a brain injury.
1. Fatigue and Insomnia
A very common side effect of traumatic brain injury is extreme fatigue.
This is normal. After all, your brain needs sleep to heal.
So, if you feel like you need to sleep, listen to your body and take a nap.
But if drowsiness and fatigue are really affecting you throughout the day, even when you get a full night’s sleep, it’s possible you may have developed a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea. These are very common after TBI.
If this is the case, you should consult a sleep specialist who can diagnose any sleep disorders you may have.
Exercise is also an effective way to manage fatigue after TBI. Aerobic exercise increases oxygen and blood flow to the brain, which will help make you more alert.
You may have the opposite problem though, in that you are tired throughout the day but unable to sleep during the night.
This is most likely because your circadian rhythm, your body’s internal clock that tells you when to sleep, has been disrupted. Melatonin supplements can help get your sleep cycle back on track.
2. Language Disorders
Another TBI side effect you might experience immediately after your injury is difficulty producing and understanding language.
This happens when the language center of your brain, usually the left side, sustains damage.
There are three types of language disorders you can develop after a brain injury: dysarthria, apraxia of speech, and aphasia.
- Dysarthria is when you slur your words and have difficulty moving your lips
- Apraxia of speech occurs when you mispronounce simple, everyday words but have no trouble moving your lips
- Aphasia refers to difficulties understanding and/or producing the right words.
The best treatment for these conditions is massed practice of TBI speech therapy exercises.
Massed practice is just a fancy term for lots of repetition. Practicing these exercises frequently will engage your brain’s neuroplasticity to retrain your brain and help you relearn how to speak!
3. Sensory Disorders
Sensory problems after TBI are fairly common. These problems can include, numbness, tingling or burning sensations, and trouble feeling hot or cold.
The reason you might experience these problems is because your brain has essentially “forgot” how to interpret your senses.
Treating sensory problems will once again involve repetitive exercises that activating neuroplasticity to retrain your brain. This time, you will use sensory reeducation exercises that will help your brain relearn how to interpret different sensation.
The more consistently and repetitively you practice these exercises, the sooner you will improve your senses.
4. Spasticity and Muscle Paralysis
Spasticity and severe muscle weakness are caused by communication problems between your brain and muscles.
The best way to treat spasticity is to rewire your brain through passive range-of-motion exercises. This is where someone else performs the action for you by moving your arms and legs.
Even though you technically aren’t doing the exercises yourself, the movement still activates neuroplasticity, which will help repair your brain’s communication with your muscles.
The better the communication between your muscles and brain gets, the more your spasticity and weakness will improve, until you are able to finally relax your muscles and move them on your own.
5. Vision and Perception Problems
Problems related to vision and perception are also possible side effects of TBI.
Some of the most common vision issues after brain injury are:
- “Bouncing” images
- Weakness of eye muscles
- Involuntary eye movements
Corrective lenses are often able to compensate for some of these problems, but sometimes surgery may be necessary.
Weakness of eye muscles and involuntary eye movements can be treated with gaze stabilization exercises, which use massed practice to retrain your brain to use the eye muscles correctly.
6. Problems with Facial Recognition (Prosopagnosia)
Sometimes damage to the right side of the brain can lead to an inability to recognize the faces of familiar people or loved ones.
If you have this condition, looking at the face of your best friend can feel like looking at a stranger.
However, prosopagnosia does not make you forget a person or mean you have no way of identifying them. For example, you can still recognize your husband or wife’s voice and remember who they are.
Treatment for prosopagnosia will usually involve naming therapy to help retrain your brain and develop recognition and recall skills.
A trained speech language pathologist can help you with this therapy and teach you tricks to improve recognition.
Chronic TBI Side Effects
These TBI side effects are much more difficult to overcome than acute side effects, and can last for the rest of a person’s life. However, that does not mean they are impossible to treat.
Below is a list of the most common long-term side effects of TBI.
7. Seizures and Epilepsy
Seizures typically occur after a penetrating TBI, such as a gunshot wound to the head.
They also usually follow a TBI that causes a hematoma, i.e. bleeding in the brain.
Seizures are caused by a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain.
When you experience multiple seizures after a brain injury on a regular basis, this is considered post-traumatic epilepsy.
Currently the best treatment for seizures is anti-seizure medication. In severe cases an implant that stimulates your nerves with electrical impulses, called vagus nerve stimulator, can be attached to your neck.
8. Cognitive Deficits
One of the major long-term TBI side effects are the cognitive issues it causes. These include:
- Executive dysfunction (problems with planning, organizing, and decision making)
- Attention and concentration issues
- Memory problems (short-term and long-term)
- Learning difficulties
- Problems with empathy and other social skills
While you may always have some cognitive difficulties after your TBI, it is possible to make improvements with consistent cognitive and behavioral therapy.
The best way to improve cognitive abilities is through repetitive cognitive rehabilitation exercises that engage different parts of the brain.
9. Personality Changes
One of the more distressing long-term side effects of TBI is the personality changes that can sometimes follow.
This is all caused by damage to the right frontal lobe, which can affect a person’s emotions and inhibitions, causing them to behave more irrational and aggressive than normal.
It can also cause a person to experience severe mood swings, known as emotional lability.
It’s important for both you and your family members to understand that these changes are not your fault, they are a side effect of your traumatic brain injury.
These changes are difficult to treat, and some may even be permanent, but medication and psychotherapy can lessen their impact.
10. Social Communication Problems
After a brain injury, patients might have difficulty interpreting abstract language such as metaphors. They also have trouble understanding humor and non-verbal cues.
They might also have problems grasping other people’s emotions and point-of view, and as a result will sometimes accidentally say inappropriate or rude comments.
A psychologist or cognitive behavioral therapist can help you relearn social cues and teach you the subtleties of human interaction.
Psychiatric disorders, including psychotic breaks, are another possible, though rare, long-term side effect of TBI.
Most episodes occur within the first five years after injury, though some have been known to occur after 20 years.
Some of the psychiatric disorders that can occur after a brain injury are:
- Auditory and visual hallucinations
- Paranoid or persecutory delusions
- Disorganized thoughts
- Anti-social behavior
Psychotic episodes are usually accompanied by other effects, such as mood swings and depression.
Treating these disorders will require intensive psychotherapy and medication.
12. Endocrine Dysfunction
The symptoms of endocrine dysfunction are very similar to the other symptoms of TBI, such as mood swings, fatigue, anxiety, and memory and concentration problems.
However, the root cause of these effects is not damage to the brain regions that control these functions, but damage to the hypothalamus which controls your endocrine system. Therefore, treatment will have to be different.
Other symptoms of endocrine dysfunction include:
- Low muscle mass
- Diabetes insipidus
- Growth hormone deficiency
Endocrine dysfunction is frequently overlooked in TBI treatment, mainly because its symptoms overlap so much with other types of brain damage.
The problem is the methods used to treat other types of brain damage, like activating neuroplasticity to restore lost function, are pretty much ineffective against endocrine problems.
That’s why it’s so important to have your endocrine function tested by a doctor.
Treatment for endocrine dysfunction will mainly involve taking synthetic hormones to supplement or replace your natural hormones.
13. Neurological Disorders
Sadly, adults with a history of moderate to severe TBI are 4 to 6 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or progressive dementia than those without a TBI.
People with multiple TBIs are at an even greater risk.
Other neurological disorders that can follow a brain injury are:
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
Scientists are not sure why exactly there is a connection between brain injuries and these neurological disorders, but many think it has something to do with a protein abnormality that occurs after a TBI.
However, not every person who experiences a TBI will develop a neurological disorder.
There is also no evidence that a single mild TBI will increase your risk of developing any of these conditions.
Currently there is no verified treatment for dementia, but practicing cognitive exercises and keeping your mind active may help reduce your risk of developing it.
How to Manage TBI Side Effects
We’ve focused a lot on the bad news of traumatic brain injury so far, but now we are going to wrap things up with some good news.
And the good news is you can lessen the severity of these TBI side effects by taking a pro-active approach in the early days of your recovery!
Here is our best advice for reducing the likelihood and severity of TBI side effects:
- Stay active. Physical therapy is crucial for regaining the abilities you lost. In addition, low impact exercise like biking or swimming has numerous benefits for brain injury recovery, from reducing symptoms of depression to restoring cognitive functions. So definitely try to incorporate those into your routine as much as possible!
- Stimulate your brain. You’ll want to be sure to exercise your mind too. Brain games like Sudoku, crossword puzzles and chess are especially great ways to keep your mental abilities sharp and prevent decline.
- Find a TBI support group. When you find others who have experienced the same trauma as you, it can be a huge relief. That’s why brain injury support groups are so important! They help prevent depression and feelings of isolation, and can motivate you to keep working on your recovery and achieve new goals.
Even if you think support groups aren’t your thing, it’s still worth trying at least once. You might be surprised how much you gain from it!
If you’re interested in joining a TBI support group, but don’t know where to start, contact your state Brain Injury Association. They’ll be able to get you in touch with the right group near you.
And that’s a wrap! We hope this guide to TBI side effects was informative and has helped prepare you to take the right steps to maximize your recovery.