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What to Expect After Brain Injury: Preparing for the Recovery Process

Doctor talking to male patient and wife in hospital bed about what to expect after brain injury

After a traumatic brain injury, many drastic changes will occur in a person’s life. The injury can affect everything from a patient’s physical abilities to their personal relationships.

This barrage of changes can be overwhelming, especially if you do not know what to expect. To help you and your loved ones manage your new reality, today’s article will explain everything you need to know about dealing with brain injury.

Let’s dive in.

What to Expect Immediately After Brain Injury

The initial days and weeks after a moderate or severe brain injury are often the most stressful for family members. During this period, your loved one may remain unconscious for some time. As the swelling in their brain decreases, they should begin to regain awareness.

You might hear the medical team using certain terms to describe your loved one’s condition during this time. These terms refer to stages in the TBI recovery process. The stages give doctors a general idea of the level of consciousness the patient has reached.

For example, some of the terms you might hear doctors use include:

  • Coma. This is the deepest state of unconsciousness. When someone is in a coma, they are unresponsive to their environment and cannot wake up, even when stimulated.
  • Vegetative State. People in a vegetative state may sometimes seem awake. Their eyes can open and close, but they are not actually aware of their surroundings. Rather, these reactions are caused by autonomic responses.
  • Minimally Conscious State. When in this state, the person now has a reduced sense of awareness. They can follow instructions and react to stimulus, though somewhat inconsistently.

When the person can answer basic questions consistently, such as what their name is, doctors consider them “emerged” from the minimally conscious state. After this, they will enter the next stage of recovery known as post-traumatic amnesia.

Post-Traumatic Amnesia

wife visiting husband in hospital after brain injury

When your loved one emerges from their coma, they may act out in surprising or disturbing ways. For example, they may seem agitated or restless, and become easily frustrated. They might even say things that are inappropriate.

But as concerning as these behaviors are, it’s important to understand that they are a normal part of brain injury recovery. Doctors refer to this state as post-traumatic amnesia.

With post-traumatic amnesia, the person is in a confusional state. In other words, their brain cannot form new memories. They are also hyper-sensitive to noise and can no longer control their impulses.

When the amnesia resolves and the patient can recall day-to-day events, they are usually released from the hospital.

What to Expect During Later Brain Injury Recovery

Once the person no longer requires constant medical care, they can return home. If their disabilities are severe, doctors might send them to an inpatient rehab facility, where they can receive individualized therapy.

It is during this period after brain injury that you will begin to notice the full extent of their TBI symptoms. The following are some examples of side effects your loved one might experience after head injury:

Physical Symptoms

woman experiencing migraine in busy mall

Severe TBIs can cause various physical symptoms, including:

In addition to these symptoms, patients can also experience seizures. These mostly only occur after certain types of traumatic brain injuries though.

Sensory Problems

A head injury can also disrupt the brain’s ability to process the senses.

For example, TBI can lead to many visual problems, including:

Besides problems with sight, a severe brain injury can cause the person to lose their sense of taste, smell, and even touch.

Cognitive Impairments

senior man writing in notebook in library

Perhaps the most common problems that occur after brain injury revolve around cognitive difficulties.

The following are some examples of the cognitive effects of brain injury.

Fortunately, you can treat these and other issues with cognitive exercises for TBI patients.

Emotional Problems

Finally, patients can develop several emotional problems after brain injury. Some emotional changes that can occur include:

Besides all these symptoms, a head injury can also cause feelings of PTSD.

PTSD causes many of the same symptoms as brain injury, but they are accompanied by heightened sensitivity to danger and involuntary memories of the traumatic event.

How to Treat Side Effects After Brain Injury

Looking at the list of symptoms above can feel overwhelming. And it’s important to realize that not every person will experience every side effect.

Still, it can be helpful to know what side effects to expect after head injury. That way you can take the correct actions to minimize their severity.

In fact, you can reverse many of these symptoms by activating something called neuroplasticity. This term refers to the brain’s ability to repair neural connections. It allows people to regain functions even after a devastating injury.

How to Engage Neuroplasticity After TBI

illustration of brain sparkling in space to represent neuroplasticity after brain injury

The key to activating neuroplasticity after head injury lies in therapeutic exercise. That’s why doctors encourage so much therapy in the early stages of recovery.

Even after you return home, however, it is critical to continue with regular therapy. If you struggle to remember your exercises, have your therapist write you a home exercise sheet. This will help you know exactly how to do them.

There are also home therapy devices, such as FitMi, which can walk you through common exercises. Many patients find that these devices help them stay motivated in a way that hand-out sheets do not.

What to Expect Two Years After Brain Injury

Finally, you may be wondering how long you can expect your brain injury recovery to last. According to most experts, the bulk of TBI recovery occurs within the first two years. After two years:

  • 90% of moderate to severe TBI patients lived in a private residence.
  • 50% of severe brain injury survivors can drive again, with some adaptations
  • 70% of severe TBI patients were functionally independent

But what if you don’t reach these milestones after two years? Does recovery cease?

Not at all! In fact, recent research shows that recovery does continue past those first two years.

For example, a study that followed TBI patients for a decade found that even at the 10-year mark some patients were still improving their function.

Since recovery does continue, it’s crucial for survivors to keep up with therapy and other treatments.

Preparing for the TBI Recovery Journey

In the end, every single TBI is unique, which means every person’s recovery journey will be unique as well.

By knowing what to expect after brain injury though, you can prepare yourself to take the right measures to ensure a good recovery from TBI.

It might take you longer to recover than others. But the only way to ensure that you make progress is to stick with your therapy program and follow the advice of your medical team.

We hope this guide to brain injury helps make the recovery journey a little more manageable. Good luck!

Featured image: ©iStock/monkeybusinessimages

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