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Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, is defined as a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the function of the brain. A concussion is a mild sub-TBI.

A TBI can occur from a football tackle or sports injury, a fall, a car accident, a shaken baby, or a roadside blast. It can be mild, moderate or severe, depending on the extent of the damage to the brain. Although most people recover fully after a TBI, how quickly they improve depends on many factors. These factors include how severe their TBI was, their age, how healthy they were prior to the concussion, and how they take care of themselves after the injury. Early treatment of symptoms by a specialist may speed recovery.

Benjamin D. Christiansen, PsyD, LP, a Neuropsychologist at Tanner Clinic, is one such specialist. Christiansen specializes in brain functioning, specifically how behavior and skills are related to brain structures and systems.

“Testing for a TBI is important to help plan and monitor cognitive rehabilitation,” says Christiansen. “The vast majority of secondary concussions occur in the first two weeks from the first one.” He explains that since a secondary concussion takes much longer to recover from, it is important to be tested, and follow a doctor’s treatment, to avoid more serious injury.

Mild TBI

A mild TBI may cause a person to lose consciousness for a few minutes, or it may take several weeks after the injury before symptoms show up. It is also possible to have a TBI and not realize it. Symptoms can include (but are not limited to):

  • Headaches that keep coming back
  • Lightheadedness
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Nausea and/or dizziness
  • Unusually tired and drowsy
  • Bothered by light, smells, or sounds
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Blurry vision or changes in vision
  • Sleep disturbances

Moderate TBI

A moderate TBI results in many of the same symptoms as well as repeated vomiting or nausea, convulsions or seizures, slurred speech, weakness, or numbness in the extremities. A severe TBI can result in epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, mental retardation, and other profound disabilities or even death.

Severe TBI

Persons who have experienced a significant TBI and related changes in their functioning may display symptoms that can be mistaken as signs of a mental health disorder. Screening by a health care professional is essential for proper treatment.

“Post-concussive syndrome can amplify emotional symptoms, such as depression because the mood function of the brain is deregulated,” explains Christiansen.

Symptoms of TBI

Emotional/Behavioral symptoms

  • Irritable, anxious, restless
  • Sad or depressed
  • Wants to be alone or away from people
  • Takes risks without thinking first
  • Unable to initiate tasks
Cognitive symptoms
  • Trouble remembering things
  • Reacts or thinks slowly
  • Trouble learning new things
  • Trouble expressing thoughts
  • Difficulty paying attention and problem solving

Prevent getting a TBI by:

  • Wearing a seatbelt every time you drive or ride in a vehicle
  • Never drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs (including prescription drugs)
  • Wear a helmet while bike riding, on a motorcycle, playing contact sports, etc.
  • Use handrails
  • Put non-slip pads in the bottom of your bathtub
  • Use safety gates with children

“Rest is the number one factor in recovery from a TBI, along with ample hydration, proper nutrition, and limited to zero screen time from TV, tablets, and cell phones,” Christiansen said. He also warns not to rush back into a full schedule. “Student athletes should return to school before returning to play. If a full day of school results in headaches or other symptoms, it is too early to resume sports.”