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What Are the Long-Term Effects of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury?

man being treated for traumatic brain injury

Despite the name, the long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injury can be anything but mild.

Migraines, dizziness, depression and cognitive impairments are just a few of the symptoms that accompany a mild TBI, and these symptoms can last for months, sometimes years, post-injury.

Even though it might feel scary to think about, understanding and preparing for these possible symptoms is an important first step towards recovery.

So let’s dive in.

What Is a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury?

A mild TBI is defined as a closed head injury resulting in a loss of consciousness and/or disorientation for shorter than 30 minutes. Concussions are the most common types of these injuries.

In the past, most people assumed that mild TBIs had few lasting consequences. However, many doctors are starting to take these injuries more seriously. They now recognize that even small concussions can have a long-term effect on patients.

The Long-Term Effects of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

Knowing the lasting side effects of mild TBI can help you manage your recovery better. The following are some of the most common long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injury:

1. Persistent Headaches

woman experiencing headaches, one of the long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injury

Persistent headaches, especially migraines, are a very common effect of minor traumatic brain injury. They can still present themselves long after the initial injury.

The four primary types of headaches you can experience after a mild traumatic brain injury are:

  • Tension headaches. A tight. squeezing sensation all around your head. Caused by tightness in the jaw and face.
  • Cervical headaches. Cervical headaches feel a lot like tension headaches but are caused by an injury to the neck.
  • Migraines. Strong, pounding headaches caused by inflammation of the brain.
  • Neuralgic pain. A sharp, stabbing, shooting pain, often described as an “ice pick.” Caused by nerve damage and usually accompanied by numbness on the scalp.

Read more about treating headaches after brain injury >>

2. Light sensitivity

After headaches, light sensitivity, also known as photophobia, is the second most common side effect of mild TBI.

This sensitivity can be to all types of lighting or only to fluorescent lights. It is caused by the brain’s inability to adapt to new levels of brightness.

While this sensitivity usually fades over time, it can persist for six months to a year after injury.

There is no cure for light sensitivity; however, tinted glasses can help relieve the pain and dizziness caused by it.

3. Dizziness

woman feeling dizzy and nauseous, a common long-term effect of mild traumatic brain injury

Dizziness is another frequent symptom of mild traumatic brain injury.

Not all dizziness after a head injury is identical. Some forms of dizziness will make you feel like the entire room is spinning, while others just cause you to lose your balance.

Each type of dizziness is caused by something different, and so require a different treatment.

Some of the various causes of dizziness after head injury include:

  • Migraines
  • Dehydration
  • Inner ear problems.
  • Pinched nerve in your neck
  • Low blood pressure.

Treating the root cause of your dizziness should help eliminate symptoms.

4. Sleep problems

After a concussion, you might find that you are sleepy throughout the day, but restless at night. Insomnia and drowsiness typically go together and are both common long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injury.

Some of the best ways to overcome insomnia include:

  • Create healthy sleep habits. Changing your lifestyle can help you get your sleep under control. Try waking up and going to bed at the same time each day, and make sure you exercise regularly.
  • Use natural sleep remedies. Herbal tea and melatonin can help relax your mind and get your sleep cycle back on track.
  • Try medications. If nothing else works, your doctor can prescribe medications that will help you sleep. These should only be used as a last resort though, because some drugs cause daytime drowsiness and cognitive problems.

5. Mood swings

woman covering face with hand because of mood swings, one of the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury

Extreme mood swings occur after damage to areas of the brain that regulate emotions. These brain regions help us control our:

  • Appropriate emotional response
  • Awareness of our own emotions and others
  • Ability to inhibit emotions

After a mild traumatic brain injury, these skills can become impaired. This most frequently leads to problems controlling anger and frustration. Therefore, the person with a mild TBI might seem like they have a shorter temper now than they did before their injury.

It’s important for friends and family to remember that the person’s anger isn’t really directed at you. As their injury heals, they should begin to regain control of their emotions again, but it might be something they struggle with for a long time.

6. Cognitive impairments

The long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injury can also include cognitive impairments such as problems with:

  • executive function (e.g. decision making and planning)
  • learning
  • short-term memory skills
  • attention and processing speed.

Fortunately, it is possible to recover these abilities through cognitive rehabilitation exercises. The more you engage your brain, the more it will establish new neural pathways, which will make it easier for you to process new information.

7. Depression and anxiety

sad man looking out of window, suffering from depression, one of the most overlooked long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injury

For reasons that neuroscientists still do not understand, mild traumatic brain injury seems to trigger feelings of depression and anxiety in some patients. In fact, a recent study found that 1 in 5 mild TBI patients will develop depression or some other mental health issue.

Many of the symptoms of depression, such as insomnia and concentration issues, overlap with mild TBI symptoms, which can make diagnosis difficult. Some unique symptoms of depression include:

  • restlessness
  • appetite loss or overeating
  • loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • feelings of hopelessness

Too often after a brain injury, patients will suffer from these feelings, but will not realize it could be their injury causing them.

Of course, depression is a complex issue that usually stems from multiple sources. But if you experienced a mild traumatic brain injury and now struggle with depression, it’s possible the two are related.

At any rate, it is worth speaking to a professional psychologist about to see if there is any treatment available.

How Understanding the Long-Term Effects of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Can Help Your Recovery

It can seem disheartening at first, learning about all the effects of mild traumatic brain injury. Especially knowing that some of them may last years after your injury.

But this knowledge can prepare you for the challenges you will face and makes you better equipped to tackle them.

Your brain is a resilient organ, and even with severe damage, it can still rewire itself. Therefore, you should never give up hope of regaining your old abilities.

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