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What’s the Connection Between Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injury?

senior woman closing eyes and resting on couch because she suffers from both chronic fatigue syndrome and traumatic brain injury

Chronic fatigue syndrome and traumatic brain injury often go hand-in-hand.

But why is this, and are there any effective ways to treat chronic fatigue after brain injury?

That’s what you’ll find out in today’s article.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injury

Fatigue is a common side effect of brain injury. That’s because, after the brain experiences trauma, it must devote its energy to repairing itself. This means it will not have any resources left to perform other activities.

In addition, the brain processes information less efficiently after an injury. For example, in a study that compared brain activation of both healthy patients and TBI patients, the TBI survivors used more brain regions to complete a mental task than the non-injured group did.

This shows that the damaged brain works harder and uses more resources than it did before injury.

That helps explain why fatigue is such a widespread problem for brain injury patients during the first few months of recovery.

However, many TBI survivors still suffer from chronic fatigue long after their brain should have healed from the initial injury. Therefore, there must be other factors involved.

Causes of Chronic Fatigue After Brain Injury

To treat chronic fatigue after brain injury, it is crucial to identify the root cause of it.

A study from the Journal of Head Trauma examined 90 TBI with chronic fatigue found four common factors that contribute to fatigue in brain injury. Treating these conditions may help reduce fatigue.

Here are some factors that contribute to chronic fatigue after brain injury:

1. Sleep Disorders

funny drawing of man with insomnia, a sleep disorder that causes chronic fatigue syndrome after tbi

The study above found that over 50% of TBI survivors suffer from sleep disorders. Fatigue severity was strongly correlated to poor sleep.

This makes sense since sleep is the period when your brain does most of its healing. Without healthy sleep, therefore, the brain never gets a chance to replenish its energy.

Sleep disorders occur when the brain structures that control your sleep patterns become damaged.

While the entire brain works together to keep you awake and help you fall asleep, there are three areas that play a pivotal role in the sleep/wake cycle:

  • Brain stem. The brain stem houses the reticular activating system (R.A.S.), which helps you stay awake. When you sleep, the brain stem inhibits the R.A.S.
  • Pineal gland. The pineal gland releases a hormone called melatonin, which relaxes your brain and makes you sleepy.
  • Hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is in charge of the sleep cycle. It sends signals to both the brain stem and the pineal gland and tells them when to put you to sleep or wake you up.

If any of these brain regions get impaired, you will experience sleep problems.

2. Vitamin D Deficiency

woman smiling and standing in the sunshine to boost her vitamin D, which can help with chronic fatigue syndrome and traumatic brain injury

Another contributing factor to fatigue is vitamin D deficiency. Because many TBI patients are housebound, they do not get the proper levels of vitamin D they need, unless they supplement it from something else.

In fact, according to the Journal of Head Trauma, 65% of brain injury patients are severely deficient in vitamin D.

Vitamin D has many important functions, including helping the neurons carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Without this crucial nutrient, the brain cannot function smoothly, which causes fatigue.

This might explain why correcting vitamin D levels helps relieve symptoms in chronic fatigue patients.  

3. Anxiety Disorders

nervous girl biting lip, suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and traumatic brain injury

It might sound surprising to hear that anxiety can cause fatigue, since anxiety is usually associated with hyper-alertness. But it’s true.

Anxiety triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which raises heart rate and blood pressure, and sends toxins into the bloodstream that cause inflammation. If this happens too frequently, your body will be in a constant state of lethargy, as if you just ran a marathon.

Once again, the study above found that 36% of TBI patients with chronic fatigue suffered from various anxiety disorders.

This means if you can’t seem to overcome fatigue, it might be caused by your anxiety. Working with a neuropsychologist can help you find ways to manage anxiety and therefore reduce your exhaustion.  

4. Neuroendocrine Problems

stethoscope and pills surrounding magnetic letters that spell hormones

Finally, sometimes the root cause of your fatigue is actually due to neuroendocrine dysfunction. Damage to your hypothalamus can cause the endocrine system to stop working properly.

The endocrine system controls your body’s adrenaline and testosterone levels, thyroid function, and growth hormone production.

All of these hormones help keep your energy levels up, and if any of them are low or absent, it will cause extreme fatigue.

The good news is there are medications that treat this condition and can help get your endocrine system back to normal.

Treating Chronic Fatigue After Brain Injury

Besides addressing the issues above, here are some general tips to help you overcome chronic fatigue after brain injury:

  • Exercise. Regular exercise increases the production of endorphins, which will energize you. It also boosts blood flow to the brain, keeping you mentally sharp. If you find exercise too difficult, start with a light, short workout, then gradually increase intensity.
  • Eat health foods. Consuming energy-boosting foods for brain injury recovery can greatly reduce your fatigue. The best foods for energy are bananas, apples, yogurt, and oatmeal. Make sure to drink plenty of water as well.
  • Reduce stress. Since anxiety increases fatigue, taking steps to reduce it can be very effective. Yoga and other meditative practices are great ways to lower your stress and increase energy.

By following these steps and treating the root causes of chronic fatigue syndrome, you should start to see a major improvement in your symptoms.

Final Thoughts

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a debilitating side effect of traumatic brain injury. At its most severe, it can prevent you from keeping up with your therapy routine, which will cause a significant setback in your recovery.

Anxiety, sleep disorders, vitamin D deficiency, and endocrine problems are common symptoms of TBI, and can all contribute to fatigue. Therefore, it’s crucial to find out if you suffer from any of these problems and address them before you try any other treatments.

We hope this article helps you find ways to overcome chronic fatigue and regain the energy to continue your recovery.

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