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Fatigue After Brain Injury: Why It Happens & How to Cope

Woman rubbing her eyes at her desk looking tired because she has fatigue after brain injury

Extreme fatigue after brain injury is a common but frustrating problem for many TBI survivors.

To help you overcome the effects of exhaustion, this page contains some helpful information on the causes and treatments of post-TBI fatigue.

This information should help you understand why you might feel excessively tired, and how to cope.

Causes and Types of Fatigue After TBI

After a brain injury, the brain focuses most of its energy on healing itself. This means TBI patients have fewer resources left to devote to other cognitive activities.

This reallocation of energy may explain why TBI patients feel more tired than usual, especially after therapy.

When addressing the symptoms of fatigue after brain injury, it’s important to understand the type of fatigue you suffer from.

Overall, there are three different types of fatigue that brain injury patients may experience:

  • Physical fatigue. With this type of fatigue, you feel exhausted after doing physical work, sometimes even after simple tasks. It usually is most severe in the evening, but gets better after you sleep.
  • Cognitive fatigue. With this type of fatigue, it is hard to concentrate and perform simple mental tasks. You may find that reading a book or trying to listen to someone talk wears you out quickly. As with physical fatigue, mental fatigue is usually worse at the end of the day.
  • Psychological fatigue. This type of fatigue has a lot of the same symptoms as physical and mental fatigue, but unlike those, it does not get better after rest.

In addition, certain secondary effects of TBI, such as depression and endocrine dysfunction can contribute to feelings of exhaustion and fatigue.

While it is possible to experience all three types of fatigue after brain injury, most TBI patients suffer from cognitive fatigue. The advice in this article will therefore focus on treatments that address cognitive fatigue.

Treatments for Fatigue After Brain Injury

Sometimes it takes time for fatigue to improve. But instead of waiting for your energy levels to bounce back, you can take active measures to feel less tired.

Here are a few tips to help you beat fatigue and get your life back:

1. Ease into Light Exercise

woman tying shoe getting ready to exercise to beat her fatigue after brain injury

Regular exercise is a great way to reduce fatigue and promote neuroplasticity, which will help your brain rewire itself. Exercise not only boosts endorphin levels, it also increases oxygen levels in your blood and improves cerebral blood flow.

All of this helps your brain heal and can give you more energy throughout the day.

The best type of exercise for curing exhaustion is any kind of aerobic activity such as swimming, biking, or yoga. These activities are effective at increasing oxygen in the blood.

Unfortunately with cognitive fatigue, it can sometimes feel like you are stuck in a vicious cycle: you must exercise to beat your fatigue, but you are too fatigued to exercise.

To break this cycle, doctors recommend that you start with a light and short workout. Then, gradually increase the intensity and frequency of your exercise routine over time. It is ok if you can’t do much at first. Just start with what you can.

2. Eat Energy-Boosting Foods 

woman mixing healthy smoothie for her fatigue

Consuming a diet packed with energy-boosting foods can help greatly reduce your fatigue and exhaustion. Some of the best foods for increasing energy levels include:

  • Bananas. Bananas are rich sources of potassium and vitamin B6, both of which help boost energy in the body.
  • Apples. A single medium-sized apple contains around 19 grams of sugar, 25 grams of carbs, and four grams of fiber. The fiber in the apple helps maintain stable blood sugar levels (because fiber is a carbohydrate that is not digested/turned into sugar in your body), which in turn can help keep you from feeling fatigued.
  • Yogurt. Not only is yogurt packed with protein and simple sugars, but it is also rich in vitamins B2 and B12, which aid the formation of ATP, a molecule that your cells use for fuel!
  • Oats. The oats in oatmeal are rich in certain vitamins and minerals that help with energy production, such as iron and manganese.

In addition to these foods, many of the foods that promote brain function, such as those found in a good brain injury diet, are also great at boosting energy. So be sure to add those to your diet as well.

3. Reduce Stress

Stress is often a major factor in fatigue, and taking steps to reduce it can be very effective in treating your exhaustion.

Yoga and other mindfulness meditative practices are great ways to lower your stress and increase energy.

The foundational principle of mindfulness is staying present to your surroundings and the current moment. While it may not be possible for you to do this all the time, try to spend at least ten minutes a day practicing it.

With enough practice, your brain will retrain itself to stay in the moment and absorb more relevant information. You will also get better at filtering out unnecessary distractions. This, in turn, can help you reduce stress and fatigue.

4. Talk to a Sleep Specialist

senior woman talking to her doctor about her symptoms

If exercise and diet changes do not help relieve your fatigue, and you are tired even upon waking up in the morning, you may want to consider talking to a sleep specialist.

Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia, are very common in TBI patients, and they could be contributing to your constant fatigue.

Sleep apnea occurs when a person’s breathing is disrupted during sleep. This can lead to an excess amount of COin the bloodstream, which can cause extreme fatigue.

An overnight sleep study can help identify any sleep disorders you may have, and a sleep specialist can recommend ways to treat it and get you back to having a refreshing night’s sleep.

5. Medications for Fatigue after Brain Injury

Finally, some medications used to treat spasticity can cause fatigue after brain injury. If you are taking these meds, you may want to ask your doctor about lowering your dosage.

Also, for some patients with TBIs, doctors will prescribe certain stimulants, such as Modafinil, that can help counter fatigue. However, you should only consider these medications if other treatment approaches are not proving to be sufficient.

If you do decide to try stimulants, make sure you do so under close medical supervision. Do not start or stop any stimulants without your doctor’s approval.

Managing Fatigue After Brain Injury

Hopefully this article has shown you how to successfully manage and even cure fatigue after brain injury.

By getting enough exercise, eating a good diet, and treating whatever underlying condition may be causing your fatigue, you can begin to conquer exhaustion and get back to living your life.

Featured Image: ©iStock/seb_ra

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