Numbness after head injury can cause a complete loss of feeling or a burning, prickling sensation in various parts of your body.
Often, the numbness will only last a few months. But some patients, especially severe brain injury survivors, will not recover sensation on their own. Fortunately, there are ways to regain at least some of your sense of touch.
This article will discuss the various causes and treatments of numbness after head injury.
Causes of Numbness After Head Injury
One of the most common causes of numbness after head injury is damage to the somatosensory cortex.
This cortex is in charge of processing all bodily sensations. These come from receptors found throughout the body that detect:
- Proprioception (position of the body in space)
When nerves detect one of these sensations, they send that information to the brain’s thalamus. The thalamus then passes that on to the somatosensory cortex. If the somatosensory cortex sustains damage, however, then the brain can no longer process sensation. As a result, numbness can arise.
Other Causes of Numbness
Numbness can also develop after nerve damage, which is a common side effect of head injury. For example, if you injure the trigeminal nerve in your jaw, you will experience numbness in your face. In addition, there are several nerve clusters in your neck that, if compressed, will cause numbness.
Other symptoms of nerve damage after head injury include:
- Non-painful tingling (paresthesia)
- Prickling or “pins and needles”
- Hypersensitivity to touch (dysesthesia)
Fortunately, it is generally possible to treat all of these symptoms.
Diagnosing Numbness After Head Injury
Since both a pinched nerve and brain damage can lead to numbness after head injury, it’s essential to determine which one is causing problems.
Doctors will perform a variety of tests for an accurate diagnosis, such as MRIs or CT scans that let them see which parts of the brain might be affected.
Your doctor may also decide to use a nerve conduction velocity test, which measures the electrical signals moving through your peripheral nerves. This method can be an effective way to determine whether your numbness is due to nerve damage or brain damage.
Finally, you can also try treatment with a physical therapist to determine if your neck injury is causing numbness.
Treating Numbness After Head Injury through Sensory Reeducation
Once you determine what is causing your sensory issues, you can target effective treatments. If your numbness was caused by brain damage, one of the most effective treatment approaches is sensory reeducation.
Sensory reeducation, also known as sensory stimulation, is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that helps the brain relearn how to interpret sensation again. It has proven effective in helping people to regain sensation.
Sensory retraining exercises involve touching objects to activate the brain’s neuroplasticity. Some exercises include:
- Rice bowl exercise. First, fill a bowl with rice or sand, and have a friend hide marbles or coins inside the rice. Without using your vision, retrieve each object with your hand.
- Sensory locating. Close your eyes and have someone else place their hand on your arm. Now, point to the place where you think they touched you. If it is wrong, they should move your hand to the correct spot for clarification and retraining.
- Temperature differentiation. Soak one cloth in cold water and another one in warm, not hot water. Have a friend lay the cold cloth on your arm while you close your eyes. Next, have them lay the warm cloth of your arm and determine if you can feel a difference between the two. Alternate between the hot and cold cloths 10 times.
- Texture handling. Place different objects in your hand while your eyes are open. Look at them, and try to describe how they feel. Once you have gone through all the objects, repeat the exercise with your eyes closed.
These exercises will activate your brain’s neuroplasticity and may decrease numbness after a head injury.
Other Treatments for Numbness After Head Injury
If your numbness is caused by nerve damage, sensory stimulation is not effective. However, there are still several other treatment options available.
Below are a few of the most effective treatment for numbness caused by nerve damage after head injury:
1. Massage Therapy and Acupuncture
If the pinched nerve is in your neck, massage therapy and manual manipulation can relieve pressure on the nerves, which may restore sensation.
Many people also find relief from their numbness through acupuncture. While there is minimal research available on the effectiveness of acupuncture on numbness, there is evidence that it relieves neuropathy.
Since numbness is a form of neuropathy, acupuncture might be effective and successful for you.
2. Electrical Stimulation (e-stim)
Electrical stimulation is another treatment option that may decrease numbness after a head injury. E-stim is a popular therapy that involves electrical impulses delivered to your muscles through adhesive electrodes placed on your skin.
Treating numbness and other nerve issues requires the use of a TENS unit. These deliver a slightly lower electrical pulse, which allows it to stimulate your nerves without activating your muscles. Therapists may recommend trying TENS first before choosing the other treatments listed above.
Some patients develop a tolerance to electrical stimulation after prolonged use. To avoid this, try alternating between low and high frequencies. Your therapist can recommend the most effective frequencies for you.
Finally, medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs can provide relief from tingling and burning sensations that accompany numbness.
Other drugs that may help alleviate numbness include lidocaine patches and certain anti-depressants.
Do not begin any medications without permission from your doctor.
When to Seek Help for Numbness After Head Injury
Most of the time, numbness will fade on its own and is not life-threatening. However, there are times when it’s a sign of a more critical condition.
If you experience numbness after your head injury, get to the hospital immediately if you also display these signs:
- Severe headache
- Uncontrollable vomiting
- Slurred speech
- Neck stiffness
- Double vision
The doctor at the ER may administer tests to determine if these symptoms are signs of more severe brain damage.
Recovering from Numbness After Head Injury
Numbness after head injury can either be caused by injury to the brain or nerve damage.
Once you can determine the source of your numbness, you can start appropriate treatment after talking with your physical therapist. Treatment may include sensory retraining, electrical stimulation, massage therapy, and acupuncture.
It may take some time before you notice improvements, so please do not give up. The brain is a remarkably adaptive organ, and with treatment, you can live your best life with adaptations.