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What Medications Are Used to Treat Traumatic Brain Injury?

doctor showing tbi patient medications used for traumatic brain injury

There are many medications that can be used to treat the effects of traumatic brain injury.

While medications should never replace physical therapy and other treatments, they can act as a support for recovery and relieve many of the more painful TBI symptoms.

Today you will learn about the best medications for traumatic brain injury recovery and how to use them. Let’s get started.

Medications Used for Traumatic Brain Injury

Medications can address several problems associated with brain injury, from mood disorders to physical pain.

There are currently no drugs that are FDA-approved to treat the effects of traumatic brain injury, which means the medications listed below are all “off-label.”

It should also be noted that many of these drugs can have negative side effects. Therefore, the decision to start any medication should be carefully considered with the help of your doctor.

Here are some of the most common types of medications used to treat traumatic brain injury:

1. Psychostimulants

These drugs are frequently used to improve cognitive functioning in traumatic brain injury patients.

Psychostimulants, such as methylphenidate, increase frontal lobe activity in patients who have trouble with self-regulation and self-control. They can also improve alertness and depressive symptoms

While methylphenidate is primarily used to treat ADHD, there are enough similarities between ADHD and frontal lobe brain damage that doctors will often prescribe it to their TBI patients.

Studies indicate that methylphenidate causes a significant improvement in attention spans in brain injury patients. However, it does not seem to improve memory or processing speeds.

Other stimulants that doctors can prescribe for traumatic brain injury patients include Modafinil, which helps boost alertness and combats extreme cognitive fatigue.

2. Antidepressants

Capsule pills with smile on them, representing antidepressants which are medications used for traumatic brain injury

©iStock/djedzura

Depression is a common side effect of brain injury, and antidepressants can often alleviate symptoms.

To be diagnosed with clinical depression, a person must experience at least two weeks of feeling sad or apathetic, plus four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Significant weight loss or weight gain (5 percent or more in one month)
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Motor agitation or slowing (making strange movements without meaning to)
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Decreased concentration or indecisiveness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

The most common antidepressants prescribed to brain injury patients are:

  • Fluoxetine hydrochloride (Prozac)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Fluvoxamine (Luvox)
  • Venlafaxine (Effexor)

Some antidepressants can cause sedation which can worsen cognitive dysfunction. Talk to your doctor before trying any.

However, other antidepressants, especially SSRIs like Prozac, can boost serotonin activity in the brain, which may improve cognitive function. More studies are still needed to establish this though

3. Antiparkinson Agents

Antiparkinson agents are also frequently used to combat the effects of brain injury. These drugs have varied mechanisms, but they all serve to increase dopamine levels in the brain.

The best antiparkinson drug for brain injury appears to be amantadine.

Patients treated with amantadine showed improvements across multiple cognitive functions, including:

  • Decreased apathy
  • Increased attention, concentration, and arousal
  • Improved executive functioning
  • Faster processing time
  • Reduced agitation, aggression, and anxiety

In a major, placebo-controlled trial, amantadine-treated TBI patients made a significantly faster recovery than those receiving a placebo.

4. Antispasmodic Medications

doctor injecting botox into patient's arm

Antispasticity meds can help treat stiff muscles after brain injury.

The most common types of antispasticity drugs for TBI patients are:

  • Tizanidine hydrochloride (Zanaflex). Tizanidine is an oral muscle relaxant that is metabolized by the liver. One dose of 8 mg reduces muscle tone in spasticity patients for several hours.
  • Baclofen. Baclofen works by inhibiting nerve signals to the muscles, preventing them from spasming. It can either be taken orally or delivered intrathecally through a spinal port.
  • Botox. Botox works in a similar way as baclofen, by blocking the signals between the nerves and muscles. However, Botox’s effects last much longer. Botox must be injected directly into the targeted muscle.

While these drugs can provide temporary relief from the pain of spasticity, they will not cure it. To do that will require addressing the root cause of spasticity, which is poor communication between the brain and muscles.

Learn how to overcome spasticity after TBI.

5. Pain Medications

Pain management is an important part of traumatic brain injury recovery.

However, strong pain medications, such as opiates and narcotics, are not usually the solution to pain after TBI. That’s because these drugs work by suppressing brain activity, which can be dangerous for brain injury survivors who already have impaired brain function.

Non-opioid analgesics such as acetaminophen and naproxen are generally safe for TBI patients. Ibuprofen is also a good option, but do not take it within the first week or two after a head injury, as it can increase your risk of bleeding.

If your pain is too much to bear, talk to your doctor. Stronger pain meds taken for only a short period might be able to help without causing any long-term cognitive damage.

Medications for Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury causes many cognitive, emotional, and physical side effects that can be difficult to live with.

Medications can often help take the edge off these symptoms and allow patients to function again. However, while they can help promote recovery, they are no substitute for the hard work of consistent therapy.

Drugs such as the ones listed above only treat the symptoms of brain injury. But to fully recover from TBI, you will need to engage your brain’s natural repair mechanism, neuroplasticity. You do this through repetitive practice.

By combining modern medications with frequent physical therapy, you can increase your chances of making a great recovery.

Featured image: ©iStock.com/SARINYAPINNGAM

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