Topic Overview

What is a traumatic brain injury?

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can range from a mild concussion to a severe head injury. It is caused by a blow to the head or body, a wound that breaks through the skull (such as from a gunshot), a fall, or another injury that jars or shakes the brain. This can cause bruising, swelling, or tearing of brain tissue.

With rest, most people fully recover from a mild brain injury. But some people who have had a severe or repeated brain injury may have long-lasting problems with movement, learning, or speaking.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of a traumatic brain injury range from mild to severe and can last for hours, days, weeks, or even months. These symptoms may include:

  • Not thinking clearly, or having trouble remembering new information.
  • Having headaches, vision problems, or dizziness.
  • Feeling sad, nervous, or easily angered.
  • Sleeping more or less than usual.

If you develop these kinds of symptoms at any time after a head injury—even much later—call your doctor.

You may need another person to watch you closely to make sure that your symptoms aren't getting worse. Follow your doctor's instructions about how long you need someone to stay with you.

How is a traumatic brain injury diagnosed?

The doctor will ask you questions about the injury. He or she may ask questions that test your ability to pay attention, learn, remember, and solve problems. The doctor will check for physical signs of a brain injury by checking your reflexes, strength, balance, coordination, and sensation. The doctor may order imaging tests such as a CT scan or an MRI to make sure that your brain isn't bruised or bleeding. You may need tests to see if your brain is working as it should.

How is it treated?

If your brain has been damaged, you may need treatment and rehabilitation, perhaps on a long-term basis. This might include:

  • Physical and occupational therapy to help you regain the ability to do daily activities and to live as independently as possible.
  • Speech and language therapy to help you with understanding and producing language, as well as organizing daily tasks and developing problem-solving methods.
  • Counselling to help you understand your thoughts and learn ways to cope with your feelings. This can help you feel more in control and help get you back to your life's activities.
  • Social support and support groups so that you get the chance to talk with people who are going through the same things you are. Your family or friends may be able to help you get treatment and deal with your symptoms.
  • Medicines to help relieve symptoms like sleep problems, chronic pain, and headaches. Medicine can also help if you have anxiety, depression, or memory problems. Talk with your doctor about what medicines might be best for you.

You may need to try different types of treatment before finding the one that helps you. Your doctor can help you with this. Treatment can help you feel more in control of your emotions, have fewer symptoms, and enjoy life again.

What is it like to live with a traumatic brain injury?

Your brain will need time to heal. Rest is the best way to recover. Here are some tips to help you get better:

  • Get plenty of sleep, and take it easy during the day.
  • Don't drink alcohol or use illegal drugs.
  • Return to your normal activities gradually.
  • Ask your doctor when it's okay for you to drive a car, ride a bike, or operate machinery.
  • Avoid activities that make you feel worse. These may be physically or mentally demanding activities like housework, exercise, schoolwork, or video games.
  • Ask your doctor which medicines you should and shouldn't take.
  • If you feel grumpy or irritable, get away from whatever is bothering you.

Long after the brain injury, you may still feel mental and physical effects (post-concussive syndrome), or new symptoms may develop.

  • Headaches: They are especially common after a brain injury, even months later. You may find that your headaches evolve into chronic pain, which can make even the lightest activities difficult.
  • Thinking skills: Brain injuries can affect how well you can concentrate. It may be hard for you to learn a lot of new information all at once. You may not be able to remember things that just happened.
  • Communication: You may have trouble expressing yourself clearly or understanding what other people are saying. When you talk in a group of people, you might find it hard to keep up.
  • Emotions: You may feel anxious or depressed, have rapid mood changes, or lose interest in things you used to enjoy. Your emotional ups and downs may be tied to struggles with speaking, thinking, and memory.
  • Sleep: You may have changes in your sleep patterns, such as not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep, or sleeping much more of the time. Not getting good sleep can affect how well you recover and how severely other symptoms affect you.
  • Drug or alcohol misuse: You may use drugs or alcohol to get rid of feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress or to feel normal or accepted. If you are having problems with drugs or alcohol, treatment can help. The first step is often detoxification, along with medical care.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: Along with the physical damage from a brain injury, you might have long-lasting effects from the trauma of the injury. You may have fears about a loss of safety and control in your life. You may pull away from other people, work all the time, or use drugs or alcohol. It's important to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Talk to your family doctor. Or, if you're a veteran, contact Veterans Affairs Canada.
  • Developmental problems: In children, a brain injury, even a mild one, can interrupt the brain's development. This can have a permanent effect on a child's ability to keep up with his or her peers. If your child has had a head injury, call your doctor for advice on what to do.

If you find that you are feeling sad or blue or aren't enjoying the activities or hobbies that you enjoyed in the past, talk to your doctor about these feelings. You may have depression, which is common with chronic pain and other symptoms of a brain injury. If you have thoughts about hurting yourself or someone else, call 911, your provincial health information line, or other emergency services right away.

What can you do for a loved one who's had a brain injury?

If someone you care about has had a traumatic brain injury, you may feel helpless. It's hard to watch someone who used to be active or happy become inactive, struggle with speech and memory, or suffer from chronic pain. But there are some things you can do to help.

  • Help the person get treatment or stay in treatment.
  • Encourage and support the person.
  • Learn about brain injuries and the long-lasting symptoms that can interrupt a life.
  • Help the person have good health habits, such as being active, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and limiting alcohol.
  • Help the person take it one day at a time, setting small goals on the way to getting better.
  • If the person isn't getting better, help him or her get treatment with a doctor who specializes in brain injury.

It's possible for long-lasting effects of a brain injury to lead to depression. And depression can lead to suicide. Call 911, your provincial health information line, or other emergency services if the person plans to harm himself or herself or others.

Other Places To Get Help

Organization

Provincial and Territorial Helplines and Websites (Canada)

If you want to save this information but don't think it is safe to take it home, see if a trusted friend can keep it for you. Plan ahead. Know who you can call for help, and memorize the phone number.

Be careful online too. Your online activity may be seen by others. Do not use your personal computer or device to read about this topic. Use a safe computer such as one at work, a friend's house, or a library.

Many of the resources below have toll-free phone numbers and provide help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in multiple languages. In an emergency, call 911.

Canada-wide resources

  • To find a suicide prevention crisis centre phone number or website in your province, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention's webpage at http://suicideprevention.ca/thinking-about-suicide.
  • To find a rape crisis or women's centre phone number or website in your province, visit the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres' webpage at www.casac.ca/content/anti-violence-centres.
  • Kids and teens can call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or visit http://org.kidshelpphone.ca.

Alberta

  • Provincial Health Information Line. Health Link. Call 8-1-1 or visit www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/healthinfo/link/index.html.
  • Alberta Human Services: Connect to Support and Services. Call one of the numbers below or visit http://humanservices.alberta.ca/abuse-bullying/14839.html.
    • Family Violence Info Line. Call 310-1818.
    • Child Abuse Hotline. Call 1-800-387-5437.
    • Bullying Helpline. Call 1-888-456-2323.
  • Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE). Call (780) 423-4121 or visit www.sace.ab.ca.
  • Mental Health Helpline. Call 1-877-303-2642.
  • Addiction Services Helpline. Call 1-866-332-2322.

British Columbia

  • Provincial Health Information Line. HealthLinkBC. Call 8-1-1 or visit www.healthlinkbc.ca.
  • VictimLinkBC. Call 1-800-563-0808 or visit http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/justice/criminal-justice/victims-of-crime/victimlinkbc.
  • Keeping Kids Safe. Call 1-800-663-9122 or visit http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/public-safety/protecting-children/keeping-kids-safe.
  • Helpline for Children. Children and youth can call 310-1234.
  • BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. Call 310-6789 or visit www.bcmhsus.ca.
  • Crisis Centre. Call 1-800-784-2433 or visit http://crisiscentre.bc.ca.

New Brunswick

  • Provincial Health Information Line. Tele-Care: Call 8-1-1 or visit www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/health/Tele-Care.html.
  • Emergency Social Services. Visit http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/social_development/about_us/emergency_socialservices.html to find the number for the office nearest you or call 1-800-442-9799.
  • Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre. Call (506) 454-0437 or visit www.fsacc.ca.
  • Suicide Prevention CHIMO Helpline. Call 1-800-667-5005 or visit www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/health/Suicide_Prevention.html.

Ontario

  • Provincial Health Information Line. Telehealth Ontario: Call 1-866-797-0000 or visit www.ontario.ca/page/get-medical-advice-telehealth-ontario.
  • Assaulted Women's Helpline. Call 1-866-863-0511 or visit www.awhl.org.
  • Distress and Crisis Ontario. Visit www.dcontario.org centres.html to find the phone number for a crisis line in your calling area.
  • Drug and Alcohol Helpline. Call 1-800-565-8603 or visit www.drugandalcoholhelpline.ca.
  • Mental Health Helpline. Call 1-866-531-2600 or visit www.mentalhealthhelpline.ca.

Quebec

  • Provincial Health Information Line. Info-Sante. Call 8-1-1 or visit www.santemonteregie.qc.ca/portail/services/info-sante.en.html.
  • Domestic Violence. Go to http://domesticviolence.gouv.qc.ca.
  • Batshaw Youth and Family Centres Foundation. Call Youth Protection Services at (514) 935-6196 or visit www.batshaw.qc.ca/en/need-help/report.
  • Drugs: Help and Referral. Call 1-800-265-2626 or visit www.drogue-aidereference.qc.ca/www/index.php?locale=en-CA.
  • Preventing Suicide. Call 1-866-277-3553 or visit http://sante.gouv.qc.ca/en/conseils-et-prevention/prevenir-le-suicide.
  • Mental Health. Visit http://sante.gouv.qc.ca/en/problemes-de-sante/sante-mentale.

Saskatchewan

  • Provincial Health Information Line. HealthLine. Call 8-1-1 or visit www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/health/accessing-health-care-services/healthline.
  • Victims of Crime and Abuse. Go to www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/justice-crime-and-the-law/victims-of-crime-and-abuse for a list of community-based organizations and their contact information.
  • Child Abuse and Neglect. Go to www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/justice-crime-and-the-law/child-protection/child-abuse-and-neglect for a list of local child protection offices and their contact information.
  • Mental Health and Addiction Services. Go to www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/health/accessing-health-care-services/mental-health-and-addictions-support-services for a list of local mental health and addictions services.

Yukon

  • Territorial Health Information Line. HealthLine: Call 8-1-1 or visit www.hss.gov.yk.ca/811.php. If you are calling from a satellite phone, you can dial (604) 215-4700 to reach the Health Services Representative at HealthLink BC.
  • Family and Children's Services. Call 1-800-661-0408, ext. 3002, or visit www.hss.gov.yk.ca/family_children.php.
  • VictimLink. Call 1-800-563-0808 or visit the Department of Justice "Need Help? Phone Directory" at www.justice.gov.yk.ca/prog/cor/vs/phonedir.html.
  • Alcohol and Drug Services. Call 1-855-667-5777 or visit http://hss.gov.yk.ca/ads.php.

Other provinces and territories

Check your local phone book or provincial or territorial website.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Donald Sproule, MDCM, CCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine

Current as ofOctober 14, 2016