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TBI Respiratory Problems: Causes, Types, and Recovery

Man being treated for TBI respiratory problems

Respiratory problems are a dangerous complication of TBI. They mostly arise after a brain stem injury.

To help you understand these issues better, this article will cover the causes and types of TBI respiratory problems, as well as the best treatments.

Let’s get started.

What Causes TBI Respiratory Problems?

lungs inside chest showing TBI respiratory problems

Damage to the areas of the brain in charge of breathing will lead to respiratory problems.

There are two main areas of the brain that help you breathe: the brain stem and the motor cortex.

The motor cortex controls all voluntary muscle movements, including breathing.

The brain stem, on the other hand, plays a pivotal part in controlling involuntary functions such as breathing, swallowing, and heart rate.

Three sections – the midbrain, the pons, and the medulla – make up the brain stem.

Of the three, the medulla is the one most responsible for regulating your breathing, though the pons plays a crucial role as well.

How Does the Brain Control Breathing?

Most of the time, unless you consciously focus on your breath, the brain stem controls your respiratory rate.

Inside the brain stem are a vast network of neurons that are connected to your intercostal muscles, the muscles in your chest that let you breathe.

The brain stem sends signals to these muscles, telling them when to inhale and exhale. This creates your breathing rhythm.

It’s fascinating how the brain stem adapts your breath rate to changes in the environment.

For example, the medulla detects CO2 and oxygen levels in the blood, and adjusts how much you breathe in response. And the pons can control how long your inhale lasts by sensing how wide your lungs stretch.

As you can see, breathing depends on easy communication between nerve cells in the brain stem and the rest of the body. If an injury disrupts any part of this network, serious respiratory problems can result.

Types of TBI Respiratory Problems

old woman coughing from TBI respiratory problems

There are several types of TBI respiratory problems that a person can experience if they injure their medulla. We’ll take a closer look at these below.

1. Apneustic Breathing

Apneustic breathing refers to problems with exhaling air. It’s caused by damage to the pons.

When a person has apneustic breathing, they take deep breaths in but do not completely exhale. This is because the pons can’t detect how far the lungs are expanding, and so it can’t tell how much air needs to be let out.

Eventually, this condition leads to excess CO2 in the blood.

2. Irregular Respiratory Rate

If the medulla becomes damaged, this will cause it to have trouble detecting carbon dioxide levels. As a result, your brain won’t

There are two main respiratory rate problems you can experience after TBI:

  • Quick, shallow breaths.
  • Slow, infrequent breaths.

Both upset the balance of CO2 and oxygen in the body and can cause life-threatening complications.

3. Apnea

Apnea refers to lack of breathing. It happens when an injury compresses the medulla.

The most common type of apnea is sleep apnea, which, as the name suggests, only happens when the person is asleep.

Apnea can lead to hypoxia and further brain damage if it lasts too long. That’s why it’s crucial to get it treated as soon as possible.

4. Labored Breathing (Dyspnea) and Agonal Breathing

This is when a person struggles to use their breathing muscles and can barely get enough air. It occurs when there is damage to the intercostal nerves.

Labored breathing often gets confused with agonal breathing, but they are two separate conditions.

Agonal breathing means that the person is in respiratory distress and is not getting oxygen to their brain. Signs of agonal breathing include:

  • Gasping
  • Snorting
  • Moaning
  • Labored breathing

If your loved one displays these signs call 911 immediately. Agonal breathing can sometimes last several hours, but without medical intervention, it can lead to serious brain damage and even death.

Treating Respiratory Problems After Brain Injury

doctor with stethoscope treating respiratory problems after brain injury

A pulmonologist or trained respiratory therapist will help you find the best treatment for your breathing problems.

There are some medications that help regulate breathing patterns and stimulate brain stem activity. In severe cases, the person will need to be placed on a ventilator until their breathing normalizes.

There are also a few breathing exercises you can do to strengthen your chest muscles and increase respiratory function. These are great for patients whose injury affected their muscle strength.

Some effective breathing exercises include:

  • Two quick breaths. Close your mouth, then inhale through your nose twice, without letting a breath out in between. Hold for two seconds. Then exhale slowly with your lips pursed.
  • Deep breathing. Sit with your elbows slightly back. Inhale a deep breath through your nose. Hold for five seconds. Exhale slowly through your nose.
  • Huff cough. Inhale deeply through your mouth. Then, blow air out through your mouth in three even breaths. Make the sounds “ha, ha, ha” as you do it.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing. Lie on your back. Place your hand on your stomach. As you breathe, try to make your stomach move outward, not your chest. Now your breathing through your diaphragm! Diaphragmatic breathing is better for your respiratory health.

TBI Respiratory Problems: Conclusion

Respiratory problems after brain injury are rare but serious conditions.

If you receive the right interventions early enough, however, you can overcome breathing difficulties without suffering any permanent damage.

We hope this info helps you identify TBI respiratory problems and find treatments that help you breathe easy again after brain injury.

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