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How Does the Brain Repair Itself After a Traumatic Injury? (Hint: It Needs Your Help)

illustration of how the brain heals itself after traumatic injury

Traumatic brain injury is a serious medical condition that can severely impact a person’s life. Fortunately, the brain possesses an extraordinary ability to repair itself after a traumatic injury.

This ability is known as neuroplasticity, and it’s the reason that many brain injury survivors can make astounding recoveries. However, neuroplasticity does not activate itself automatically. It will require your help.

To help you optimize your brain’s natural repair mechanisms, this article will cover important facts about neuroplasticity after brain injury, including the best ways to engage it.

What is Neuroplasticity?

silhouette of person's head, their brain is shimmering, symbolizing how the brain can repair itself after traumatic injury

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize neurons in response to learning or experience.

For many years, researchers thought the adult brain was static. In other words, scientists believed that after a certain point in development, the brain could no longer adapt to change.

Today, however, research shows that the brain is always in a flexible state. This flexible state is called plasticity. We also know that we can help the brain reorganize itself through our actions.

For example, when you learn how to play an instrument, your brain creates new neural pathways in response to repetitive movement. These pathways make it easier for the brain to store and retrieve information.

This explains why the first time a person plays a chord on the guitar it feels slow and clunky. But by the hundredth time, it feels second-nature. That’s neuroplasticity in action.

Reorganizing neurons is the primary way that the brain can repair itself after a traumatic injury. We’ll discuss how that works in more detail below.

How Neuroplasticity Helps the Brain Repair Itself After Traumatic Injury

cartoon of person closing their eyes, with gears in their head representing their brain working to repair itself

Your brain is composed of over 100 trillion neural connections. When you experience brain trauma, many of the neural connections you once had become damaged or destroyed.

This explains why you might lose the ability to speak after a TBI, for example. Because the neural connections that helped you understand language have been lost.

While the brain does not generate new neurons after an injury, it can compensate for that loss by changing the way information flows throughout the brain. This is where neuroplasticity steps in.

Through neuroplasticity, the brain can form new neural pathways, and therefore repair some of the damage it sustained. It can even transfer functions that were once held in damaged parts of the brain to new, healthy areas.

Think of it as a detour on the road. If the way is blocked or destroyed, you’ll have to find another route. Neuroplasticity creates that route.

Repairing the Brain through Repetition

As we mentioned above, neuroplasticity doesn’t happen on its own. It requires repetition.

The more you practice an action, the more you reinforce your brain’s neural pathways. And the stronger those pathways become, the easier it is to perform that action.

That’s why a key aspect in TBI recovery is massed practice i.e., exercises with high repetition.

For example, to regain speech you must practice speech therapy activities several times per day. The same principle applies if you want to improve your balance, walking skill, and even your short-term memory.

Whatever ability you want to improve, with enough practice, your brain will eventually repair itself, and you can start to regain that function.

Restoring Function vs Adapting Function

warning sign for adaptive practices during tbi recovery

Neuroplasticity can help your brain repair itself after an injury. But it also has a downside you must watch out for during recovery. Physical therapist call this phenomenon maladaptive plasticity.

Maladaptive plasticity occurs when you consistently repeat an action the wrong way. For example, if your right hand is weak, you might use your left hand instead.

However, if you continue to do this, your brain will “forget” how to use your right hand entirely. This leads to a condition known as learned non-use, which can cause permanent loss of function.

That’s why therapists prefer to incorporate restorative techniques into their recovery programs. Restorative techniques teach you how to regain lost function, and not merely adapt.

Therefore, if your right hand is weak, try to resist the urge to do everything with your left hand. Instead, use your right hand as much as you can.

Pushing Through TBI Recovery Plateaus

During the first six months after a brain injury, the brain enters a heightened state of plasticity. This means that the brain will spontaneously repair itself, and therapy will have a visible impact. Therefore, you might make rapid progress in your recovery.

However, after about six months, plasticity will decrease. As a result, you might feel like your recovery has stalled.

Therapists call these stalls plateaus, and they are a normal part of TBI recovery. But just because your progress has slowed down, that does not mean that it has ceased entirely.

Your brain can still make repairs during this time, and you can still activate neuroplasticity, even during a plateau. The key is to persevere with your therapy exercises. With enough time and practice, you should begin to make progress again.

Neuroplasticity: How the Brain Repairs Itself After TBI

Now that you know a little more about the science behind brain injury recovery, you can hopefully see why consistent therapy is so important.

When you activate neuroplasticity through exercise, you help your brain repair itself and restore lost connections.

Therefore, even if you have severe brain damage, you can still make incredible improvements if you stay committed to your exercises. The more you exercise, the more skills you can regain. That’s the power of neuroplasticity.

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