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Thalamus Injury: Symptoms, Treatment, and Recovery after Thalamic TBI

Doctor showing patient a scan of her thalamus brain injury

Thalamic damage after a brain injury can lead to sensory deficits and other unusual side effects. To help you overcome a thalamus injury, this article will explain symptoms and treatment.

As with all types of TBI, it’s important to work closely with your medical team during recovery.

What is the Thalamus?

Most neurologists refer to the thalamus as the brain’s relay station. That’s because almost all sensory information must pass through it before moving on to the cerebral cortex.

These sensory signals travel up the spinal cord and into the thalamus, which lies just above the brainstem. The thalamus then processes them and passes them on to the correct region.

Besides signals from sensory systems, information travels within the brain itself, which the thalamus also plays a role in. This means the thalamus assists with cognitive processes as well, such as memory and emotion.

One of the main processes that the thalamus controls is the regulation of consciousness and sleep. In fact, during sleep, the thalamus actually blocks sensory signals from reaching the rest of the brain. This allows a person to sleep without disturbance.

Finally, the thalamus acts as a bridge between the primary motor cortex and the cerebellum and thus plays a crucial role in muscular movement.

Side Effects of Thalamus Damage After Brain Injury

doctor discussing side effects of thalamus brain injury with patient

As you can see, the thalamus contributes to a broad range of critical functions. Therefore, the side effects of thalamus damage can vary from person to person.

Some of the most common side effects of thalamic damage include:

Because the thalamus controls sleep and arousal, severe damage to it can also result in a coma.

Treating Thalamic Brain Injury

Treatment for thalamic damage will revolve around restoring the abilities lost after brain injury. There are many different ways to accomplish this.

The following are some treatments that can help you overcome the effects of thalamic injuries:

1. Physical Therapy

If your brain injury damaged your thalamus, you might experience problems coordinating movements. For example, you might walk with a wide, staggering gait or have trouble reaching for an object. Physical therapists call these problems ataxia.

Since ataxia doesn’t usually affect muscle strength, the best way to treat it is to activate neuroplasticity. You can do this by practicing the movement you want to regain.

For example, if you have trouble eating, you should practice each movement individually before putting them all together. The steps you take might look like this:

  • Step 1. Bring hand down to the table
  • Step 2. Open fingers
  • Step 3. Grasp spoon etc…

The more you practice, the more your brain will create new neural pathways in response, until the action becomes second nature again.

To regain full control of your muscles, it’s crucial to do your exercises even when you are not at the clinic. Home therapy tools like FitMi can help you stay motivated and achieve the repetitions needed to rewire your brain and improve movement.

2. Sensory Reeducation Exercises

man standing with feet in shallow water looking at feet

You can also treat sensory issues by rewiring the brain. The best type of therapy to help you accomplish this is sensory reeducation exercises.

Sensory reeducation, also known as sensory retraining, is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that teaches the brain how to process sensation again.

Some examples of sensory exercises include:

  • Sensory locating. Close your eyes and have someone else place their hand on your arm. Next, point to where you think they touched you. If you get it wrong, have them move your hand to the correct spot. This helps retrain your brain to recognize where they touched you.
  • Temperature differentiation. Soak one cloth in cold water and one in hot water. Have someone place the cold cloth on your arm while you close your eyes. Then, switch to the warm cloth. See if you can feel a difference. Alternate back and forth between hot and cold 10 times.

Finally, make sure you practice these exercises every day consistently. This will stimulate your thalamus and help it relearn how to process your senses again.

3. Functional Electrical Stimulation

For sensory reeducation to work, you must have at least some sensation to start with. However, if you have no sensation, functional electrical stimulation (FES) can help you.  

FES sends small, electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles to rewire the brain and improve movement. Many thalamus brain injury patients see improved sensation after using FES machines, even if they start with no sensation.

You can use FES devices at home, but have a therapist help you the first time you try it. They can show you the best spots on your body to place the electrodes.

4. Speech and Cognitive Therapy

speech therapist teaching patient speech exercises

While thalamus damage mainly causes sensory problems, it can also lead to behavioral and cognitive changes.

For example, many patients with a thalamus injury have jumbled up speech patterns and struggle to find the right words. Others display apathy and memory problems.

To treat these issues, it’s crucial to begin speech therapy as soon as possible. Most speech therapists are familiar with the cognitive effects of brain injury. Therefore, they can teach you exercises that will improve your memory and word-finding skills.

Learn more about speech therapy for brain injury patients »

5. Deep Brain Stimulation

Finally, thalamic damage often leads to tremors. If your tremors are severe, a doctor might recommend deep brain stimulation.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is an effective treatment for tremors. It uses surgically implanted electrodes to send high-frequency signals to the thalamus. That signal can eliminate tremors.

There is also evidence that thalamic stimulation can enhance cognitive performance after brain injury. This makes it even more helpful for TBI patients with thalamus damage.

With that said, DBS is also the riskiest treatment option. Some possible side effects include slurred speech and balance problems.

Still, if your symptoms are severely affecting your day-to-day function, it might be worth asking your doctor about it.

Recovering from Thalamus Injury

Thalamus damage often leads to sensory and motor deficits. Fortunately, you can treat both of these issues by rewiring your brain.

Because the thalamus has so many different roles though, every injury is different. Therefore, it’s crucial to work with your doctors to find the treatments that best fit your unique needs.

We hope this article helps you better understand thalamus injuries and achieve a full recovery from TBI.   

Featured Image: ©iStock/gpointstudio

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