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Is Traumatic Brain Injury Permanent? How to Help the Brain Recover

Therapist helping patient with a permanent traumatic brain injury learn how to use a walker

Traumatic brain injury can cause serious changes to a person’s cognitive and physical abilities. When an area of the brain is damaged, it is permanently gone – but fortunately, recovery is still possible thanks to the brain’s natural ability to rewire itself.

While dead brain cells cannot be restored, healthy areas of the brain can learn to compensate. This enables TBI patients to regain lost function.

This article will examine the brain’s capacity to heal itself and explain how TBI survivors can use this ability to enhance their recovery.

What are the Chronic Effects of Traumatic Brain Injury?

Severe traumatic brain injury can cause chronic side effects that will greatly impact a person’s life. Some of the most common long-term effects of severe traumatic brain injury that patients may experience include:

  • Memory and concentration difficulties
  • Muscle weakness and atrophy
  • Emotional difficulties
  • Problems with initiation and organization
  • Vision loss
  • Difficulty with conversations and social relationships

Although these issues might last for years post-injury, traumatic brain injury patients should not lose hope.

In fact, it is still possible to regain a significant amount of function even years after injury. This is due to an ability known as neuroplasticity.

How Neuroplasticity Improves TBI Recovery

glowing hologram of brain floating over hand in front of sunset

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize neurons. It does this by forming new neural connections based on experiences, learning, and environment.

The brain is composed of over 100 trillion neural connections. These connections are pathways in the brain that help a person retrieve and store information. This makes it easier to perform certain activities in the future.

When a brain injury occurs however, it can damage multiple parts of the brain and destroy many of these connections. That is why some patients might lose the ability to speak after TBI, for example. Because the neural connections that helped process language no longer exist.

However, through neuroplasticity, the brain can actually forge new neural pathways. It can even transfer functions once held in damaged parts of the brain to new, healthy areas.

Therefore, even if you suffered severe brain damage, that does not necessarily mean you have permanently lost an ability. With the right therapy, your brain can compensate for an injury and reassign functions to undamaged areas.

This ability has enormous implications for traumatic brain injury recovery, and opens up many possibilities in treatment.

Preventing Permanent Damage After Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury patient working with physical therapist to prevent permanent damage after TBI

Engaging neuroplasticity after a traumatic brain injury can in some cases help prevent permanent side effects from occurring. At the very least, it can improve your chances of making a functional recovery.

However, neuroplasticity does require effort on your end in order to have a more permanent effect on your recovery. The following are three techniques you can use to encourage neuroplasticity after brain injury:

1. Repetition

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

Today however, research shows that the brain is always in a flexible state, even in old age. Research has also demonstrated that repetitive actions engage neuroplasticity and cause changes in the brain.

For example, when you play an instrument, your brain creates new neural pathways in response to your movement. These pathways make it easier for the brain to learn new movements.

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

Therefore, one of the best things you can do to prevent permanent damage after traumatic brain injury is to engage in repetitious exercise.

2. Specificity

Another important principle of neuroplasticity is task-specificity. This essentially means that patients must tailor their therapy to target the specific movement or action they wish to improve. And the best way to do this is to practice those goals directly.

In other words, to relearn a skill like walking, you must practice the movements needed to walk. If you cannot perform it all at once yet, then break it down into smaller skills first.

3. Intensity

Finally, a key aspect of traumatic brain injury recovery is massed practice i.e., exercises with high repetition. Research indicates that the more intensive a therapy program is, the more like a person can achieve permanent results.

Therefore, to learn how to speak again after brain injury, you must practice speech therapy several times a day. The same principle applies if you want to improve your balance and even your memory.

Whatever ability you want to improve, with enough practice, you should start to regain that function.

Maintaining Hope After Traumatic Brain Injury

While many traumatic brain injuries result in permanent damage, the brain can and often does heal itself. However, patients must engage their brain’s neuroplasticity in order to do so.

Finally, keep in mind that it is not always possible to predict how well a person will recover from brain injury. Doctors are often astonished by what their patients achieve when they persevere with therapy and exercise.

The human brain is extraordinarily resilient. Even if you have received a grim diagnosis, do not give up. You may just surprise yourself by what you accomplish.

Featured Image: ©iStock/mana Krasaesom

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