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What Are the Signs of Traumatic Brain Injury?

The signs of brain injury can be very different depending on where the brain is injured and how severely. Children with TBI may have one or more difficulties, including:
  • Physical disabilities: Individuals with TBI may have problems speaking, seeing, hearing, and using their other senses. They may have headaches and feel tired a lot. They may also have trouble with skills such as writing or drawing. Their muscles may suddenly contract or tighten (this is called spasticity). They may also have seizures. Their balance and walking may also be affected. They may be partly or completely paralyzed on one side of the body, or both sides.
  • Difficulties with thinking: Because the brain has been injured, it is common that the person’s ability to use the brain changes. For example, children with TBI may have trouble with short-term memory (being able to remember something from one minute to the next, like what the teacher just said). They may also have trouble with their long-term memory (being able to remember information from a while ago, like facts learned last month). People with TBI may have trouble concentrating and only be able to focus their attention for a short time. They may think slowly. They may have trouble talking and listening to others. They may also have difficulty with reading and writing, planning, understanding the order in which events happen (called sequencing), and judgment.
  • Social, behavioral, or emotional problems: These difficulties may include sudden changes in mood, anxiety, and depression. Children with TBI may have trouble relating to others. They may be restless and may laugh or cry a lot. They may not have much motivation or much control over their emotions.

  • A child with TBI may not have all of the above difficulties. Brain injuries can range from mild to severe, and so can the changes that result from the injury. This means that it’s hard to predict how an individual will recover from the injury. Early and ongoing help can make a big difference in how the child recovers. This help can include physical or occupational therapy, counseling, and special education. It’s also important to know that, as the child grows and develops, parents and teachers may notice new problems. This is because, as students grow, they are expected to use their brain in new and different ways. The damage to the brain from the earlier injury can make it hard for the student to learn new skills that come with getting older. Sometimes parents and educators may not even realize that the student’s difficulty comes from the earlier injury.

The damage from TBI can be focal, confined to one area of the brain, or diffuse, involving more than one area of the brain. Diffuse trauma to the brain is frequently associated with concussion (a shaking of the brain in response to sudden motion of the head), diffuse axonal injury, or coma. Localized injuries may be associated with neurobehavioral manifestations, hemiparesis or other focal neurologic deficits.

Types of focal brain injury include bruising of brain tissue called a contusion and intracranial hemorrhage or hematoma, heavy bleeding in the skull. Hemorrhage, due to rupture of a blood vessel in the head, can be extra-axial, meaning it occurs within the skull but outside of the brain, or intra-axial, occurring within the brain. Extra-axial hemorrhages can be further divided into subdural hematoma, epidural hematoma, and subarachnoid hemorrhage. An epidural hematoma involves bleeding into the area between the skull and the dura. With a subdural hematoma, bleeding is confined to the area between the dura and the arachnoid membrane. A subarachnoid hemorrhage involves bleeding into the space between the surface of the brain and the arachnoid membrane that lies just above the surface of the brain, usually resulting from a tear in a blood vessel on the surface of the brain. Bleeding within the brain itself is called an intracerebral hematoma. Intra-axial bleeds are further divided into intraparenchymal hemorrhage which occurs within the brain tissue itself and intraventricular hemorrhage which occurs into the ventricular system.

TBI can result from a closed head injury or a penetrating head injury. A closed injury occurs when the head suddenly and violently hits an object but the object does not break through the skull. A penetrating injury occurs when an object pierces the skull and enters brain tissue.

As the first line of defense, the skull is particularly vulnerable to injury. Skull fractures occur when a bone in the skull cracks or breaks. A depressed skull fracture occurs when pieces of the broken skull press into the tissue of the brain. A penetrating skull fracture occurs when something pierces the skull, such as a bullet, leaving a distinct and localized traumatic injury to brain tissue. Skull fractures can cause cerebral contusion.

Another insult to the brain that can cause injury is anoxia. Anoxia is a condition in which there is an absence of oxygen supply to an organ's tissues, even if there is adequate blood flow to the tissue. Hypoxia refers to a decrease in oxygen supply rather than a complete absence of oxygen, and ischemia is inadequate blood supply, as is seen in cases in which the brain swells. In any of these cases, without adequate oxygen, a biochemical cascade called the ischemic cascade is unleashed, and the cells of the brain can die within several minutes. This type of injury is often seen in near-drowning victims, in heart attack patients (particularly those who have suffered a cardiac arrest, or in people who suffer significant blood loss from other injuries that then causes a decrease in blood flow to the brain due to circulatory (hypovolemic) shock.

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