Brain Damage: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Brain damage is an injury that causes the destruction or deterioration of brain cells.

In the U.S., every year, about 2.6 million people have some type of brain injury -- whether as a result of trauma, stroke, tumor, or other illnesses, according to the Brain Injury Association of America. About 52,000 die as a result of traumatic brain injury, and more than 5 million Americans who've suffered traumatic brain injury require assistance in performing daily activities. Approximately 130,000 Americans die of stroke each year, according to the National Stroke Association.

What Are the Types of Brain Damage and How Severe Are They?

All traumatic brain injuries are head injuries. But head injury is not necessarily brain injury. There are two types of brain injury: traumatic brain injury and acquired brain injury. Both disrupt the brain’s normal functioning.

  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is caused by an external force -- such as a blow to the head -- that causes the brain to move inside the skull or damages the skull. This in turn damages the brain.
  • Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) occurs at the cellular level. It is most often associated with pressure on the brain. This could come from a tumor. Or it could result from neurological illness, as in the case of a stroke.

Both traumatic brain injury and acquired brain injury occur after birth. And neither is degenerative. Sometimes, the two terms are used interchangeably.

There is a kind of brain damage that results from genetics or birth trauma. It's called congenital brain damage. It is not included, though, within the standard definition of brain damage or traumatic brain injury.

Some brain injuries cause focal -- or localized -- brain damage, such as the damage caused when a bullet enters the brain. In other words, the damage is confined to a small area. Closed head injuries frequently cause diffuse brain damage, which means damage to several areas of the brain. For example, both sides of the brain are damaged and the nerves are stretched throughout the brain. This is called diffuse axonal injury or DAI.

The severity of brain damage can vary with the type of brain injury. A mild brain injury may be temporary. It causes headaches, confusion, memory problems, and nausea. In a moderate brain injury, symptoms can last longer and be more pronounced. In both cases, most patients make a good recovery, although even in mild brain injury 15% of people will have persistent problems after one year.

With a severe brain injury, the person may suffer life-changing and debilitating problems. He or she will have cognitive, behavioral, and physical disabilities. People who are in a coma or a minimally responsive state may remain dependent on the care of others for the rest of their lives. .

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What Causes Brain Damage?

When the brain is starved of oxygen for a prolonged period of time, brain damage may occur. Brain damage can occur as a result of a wide range of injuries, illnesses, or conditions. Because of high-risk behaviors, males between ages 15 and 24 are most vulnerable. Young children and the elderly also have a higher risk.

Causes of traumatic brain injury include:

  • Car accidents
  • Blows to the head
  • Sports injuries
  • Falls or accidents
  • Physical violence

Causes of acquired brain injury include:

  • Poisoning or exposure to toxic substances
  • Infection
  • Strangulation, choking, or drowning
  • Stroke
  • Heart attacks
  • Tumors
  • Aneurysms
  • Neurological illnesses
  • Abuse of illegal drugs

What Are the Symptoms of Brain Damage?

There are numerous symptoms of brain damage, whether traumatic or acquired. They fall into four major categories:

  • Cognitive
  • Perceptual
  • Physical
  • Behavioral/emotional

Cognitive symptoms of brain damage include:

  • Difficulty processing information
  • Difficulty in expressing thoughts
  • Difficulty understanding others
  • Shortened attention span
  • Inability to understand abstract concepts
  • Impaired decision-making ability
  • Memory loss

Perceptual symptoms of brain damage include:

  • Change in vision, hearing, or sense of touch
  • Spatial disorientation
  • Inability to sense time
  • Disorders of smell and taste
  • Balance issues
  • Heightened sensitivity to pain

Physical symptoms of brain damage include:

Behavioral/emotional symptoms of brain damage include:

  • Irritability and impatience
  • Reduced tolerance for stress
  • Sluggishness
  • Flattened or heightened emotions or reactions
  • Denial of disability
  • Increased aggressiveness

How Are Brain Damage and Brain Injuries Treated?

Anyone who has a head or brain injury needs immediate medical attention.

A brain injury that seems mild -- referred to as a concussion -- can be as dangerous as clearly severe injuries. The key factor is the extent and location of the damage. Brain injury does not necessarily result in long-term disability or impairment. But the correct diagnosis and treatment is needed to contain or minimize the damage.

The extent and effect of brain damage is determined by a neurological exam, neuroimaging testing such as MRI or CT scans, and neuropsychological assessments. Doctors will stabilize the patient to prevent further injury, ensure blood and oxygen are flowing properly to the brain, and ensure that blood pressure is controlled.

Almost all patients will benefit from rehabilitation to assist in long-term recovery. That may include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Psychological support

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Can I Prevent Brain Injuries?

Most injuries that cause brain damage are preventable. Here are some rules to follow to reduce the risk of brain damage:

  • Never shake a child.
  • Install window guards to keep young children from falling out of open windows.
  • Install shock-absorbing material on playgrounds.
  • Wear helmets during sports or cycling.
  • Wear seatbelts in cars, and drive carefully.
  • Avoid falls by using a stepstool when reaching for high items.
  • Install handrails on stairways.
  • Don't keep guns; if you do, keep them unloaded and locked away.
  • Don't use illegal drugs.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation, and never drink and drive.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on September 11, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; "Traumatic Brain Injury Information Page" and "Traumatic Brain Injury: Hope Through Research."

New Jersey Monthly: "Questions From Steve Adubato."

National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders: "Traumatic Brain Injury: Cognitive and Communication Disorders."

Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania: "Tips for Preventing Brain Injury."

Brain Injury Association of America: "Brain Injury Facts."

National Stroke Association: "Stroke 101: Fast Facts on Strokes."

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