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Can a TBI Get Worse Over Time? Recovery Chances from a Head Injury Years Later

doctor comforting survivor after asking can a tbi get worse over time

Can a TBI get worse over time? The short answer is: yes, it can. Every brain injury is different and even though many secondary effects of a brain injury improve with time, others may linger and interfere with rehabilitation. 

Survivors with long-term effects can often present signs of decline in their recovery process. Fortunately, there are many proactive ways to help prevent or even reverse the signs of decline after brain injury.

This article will discuss some of the causes of decline after TBI, common risk factors of early death, and preventative care tips to boost recovery chances years after a head injury.

Can a TBI Get Worse Over Time? Possible Causes of Decline

If you or your loved one have sustained a brain injury, you may find yourself asking, can a TBI get worse over time? Depending on the type of injury, severity, and rehabilitation process, the answer may be yes — but there are many steps you can take to address or prevent a decline from happening.

According to the CDC, about 50% of individuals with a traumatic brain injury may experience decline or premature mortality within 5 years of the injury. Though the causes vary, two primary reasons why survivors may experience a decline after brain injury are secondary brain injuries and chemical changes in the brain.

Secondary brain injuries are complications that may arise after initial injury, such as hematomas (blood clot), hypoxia (lack of oxygen), or infections. These types of injuries or complications can often cut off blood circulation to certain portions of the brain, resulting in neural death. However, the effects of brain cell death may not always be present immediately, which may explain why a brain injury can appear to worsen over time.

A brain injury may also lead to an excess of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain. This over stimulates the brain cells eventually resulting in cell death. An excess of neurotransmitters and other harmful chemical events in the brain can cause an individual to decline over time.

Additionally, TBI recovery is heavily dependent on the rehabilitation process. If a survivor does not receive proper treatment for their secondary effects in a timely manner, it can increase the risk of complications. For example, when a survivor experiences spasticity (involuntary muscle contractions) after a TBI, rehabilitation must be pursued. If neglected, spasticity may develop into contractures, a more serious complication that causes muscle fibers to remain contracted.

When complications occur, the brain and body become more susceptible to a secondary injury or other medical conditions. Therefore, working with your doctor and therapist is crucial in order to establish a proper home rehabilitation plan and lower your chances of decline after brain injury.

Can You Die from a Head Injury Years Later? Understanding the Statistics

Understanding the statistics of mortality rates after a brain injury should help you grasp the importance of pursuing rehabilitation, not discourage you. Keep in mind that the following results show generalizations of individuals who sustained a brain injury, and recovery looks different for everyone.

Traumatic brain injury can triple the risk for early death according to a study published by JAMA Psychiatry. The early mortality rate was 20 times higher for individuals who had a psychiatric disorder at the time of their brain injury. Researchers also found that the severity of the brain injury and the number of clinical follow-ups completed after diagnosis played a role in the outcome.

A brain injury can also reduce the life expectancy of an individual by 9 years and increase the risk of death from other conditions. Survivors who sustained a moderate to severe TBI can also be more prone to a variety of chronic health issues. This can include seizures, infection, pneumonia, and accidental drug poisoning.

Another study conducted by Oxford stated that the mortality rate remained high for at least 7 years after a head injury, particularly for individuals 55 years of age and under. While the severity of the injury and medical history were associated with early death after TBI, later deaths were often associated with an individual’s lifestyle post-injury. However, researchers believe positive lifestyle changes may reduce the chances of decline and mortality.

How to Prevent a TBI from Getting Worse Over Time

Though some brain injuries can progressively get worse over time, there are proactive steps you can take to lower the chances of decline. While certain health consequences of a TBI cannot be controlled, there are others that can be prevented or reduced.

Studies have shown that chronic disease management is crucial for improving the lives of TBI survivors. This can include a combination of different treatments and preventative care.

To help prevent a brain injury from getting worse over time, try the following recovery tips:

1. Activate Neuroplasticity

The brain has the ability to heal and rewire itself through a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. When the neural pathways or connections in the brain become damaged after an injury, neuroplasticity helps create new ones. This increases the chances of restoring function and overcoming decline.

Neuroplasticity is activated through repetition of exercises, or massed practice. When a skill is practiced consistently, the brain reinforces and strengthens the related neural connections. Stimulating neuroplasticity is important and can be achieved through a variety of therapeutic exercises.

2. Participate in Therapy

One of the best methods to prevent TBI decline is to participate in rehabilitative therapy. There are various kinds of therapies available depending on the skills and areas of the brain you want to target. For example:

  • Physical therapy: focuses on rebuilding physical strength and mobility after a brain injury. Physical therapy exercises also increase blood flow to your brain, and proper blood flow can help prevent your brain injury from getting worse.
  • Speech therapy: focuses on improving speech after brain injury, as well as targeting your mental skills through various cognitive rehabilitation exercises. Cognitive exercises keep your brain active and help prevent decline.
  • Occupational therapy: aims to help you perform daily activities such as cooking or bathing as safely and independently as possible. Compensatory strategies and adaptive equipment are often introduced in occupational therapy, as well as constructive ways to boost your cognitive function.
  • Home therapy: is one the most important components for preventing decline after head injury. Home therapy exercises help you stimulate neuroplasticity and achieve high repetition of exercises. Home therapy can include a variety of exercises and neurorehabilitation devices.

Though every therapy has its own unique goals, they are all helpful in keeping your body and mind active. Staying active is crucial for maintaining your overall health especially after a brain injury. Even individuals without a brain injury can experience cognitive decline if they do not exercise regularly. Therefore, to keep your brain injury from getting worse, aim to exercise daily and stay active.

3. Stimulate Your Brain

Along with consistent exercise, focus on stimulating your brain on a daily basis. The more brain stimulation, the higher the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This is a protein that helps in the development, maintenance, and regeneration of new brain cells, which is essential for TBI recovery.

You can stimulate your brain through a variety of therapeutic activities including puzzles, art, and music therapy. However, it’s important to also give your brain time to rest and be mindful of overstimulating it during early recovery.

4. Push Through “Plateaus”

Brain injury recovery is not a straightforward recovery. It can consist of many bumps along the way but it’s important to push through. Even if you are consistently activating and stimulating your brain, there may be moments of slow or no progress. Therapists refer to these as “plateaus” during recovery.

When a plateau occurs, you may think your recovery has peaked and you will no longer see improvements. You may also believe your brain injury is getting worse over time, but that is not necessarily the case. 

It can be discouraging but do not give up. Plateaus are a challenging, normal part of recovery. If you do feel discouraged, one helpful technique is to focus on a new area or activity. This can give you just the boost of motivation you need to keep up with your exercises and prevent permanent decline. Keeping track of your progress through a recovery journal can also help you stay motivated and see how far you’ve come.

5. Find a Support Group

TBI survivors face many challenges including social isolation. Being alone for long periods of time can contribute to mental decline. To prevent this from happening, it’s important to lean on family and friends and/or find brain injury support groups. 

In a support group you can connect to other survivors and share stories and motivational tips. Staying connected with others can encourage you to keep working on your recovery and lower the chances of decline. Support groups can also reduce depression and feelings of isolation. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health after a brain injury.

6. Adapt New Lifestyle Changes

Previous studies showed that the chances of decline and premature death after brain injury can be prevented with lifestyle changes. Adapting to your daily life after a TBI can be challenging but it is necessary to increase the chances of recovery.

This can include creating healthier sleeping habits to let your brain rest and recover, increasing your vitamin intake, limiting alcohol consumption, and exercising as much as possible. These are detrimental to your health both pre and post injury.

7. Have Fun!

Lastly, give yourself time to relax and have fun. Having fun is an essential part of TBI recovery. Besides decreasing anxiety and depression, having fun also helps keep your brain stimulated. Participating in recreational activities you enjoy can also boost your motivation and reduce stress levels, all of which can help prevent and even reverse signs of decline after TBI.

The effects and complications of a brain injury can worsen over time, but they can often be prevented with proper care. Staying active and motivated not only reduces your risk of decline but it increases your chances of making a full recovery. Consult with your doctor to obtain a safe and suitable rehabilitation plan for your condition.

Can a Brain Injury Get Worse Over Time? Maintaining a Positive Outlook

Can a brain injury get worse over time? Yes it can, but it can also improve. Causes of decline after brain injury may vary, but there are certain approaches you can take to encourage recovery. Rather than focusing on what you cannot control, it can help to maintain a positive outlook and continue to pursue rehabilitation to heal your brain.

We hope this article provided you with some hope for recovery after brain injury.

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