Brain Injury Basics

How to recognize brain injuries, and what to do if you or a loved one has suffered a concussion or other head injury.

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Every year, as many as 1.4 million Americans suffer a brain injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Brain injuries can be caused by anything from a car accident to a fall in the shower. Since some brain injuries can be difficult to detect (particularly so-called "mild" brain injuries), they are often misdiagnosed or missed altogether. This article offers a primer on brain injury -- including terminology, types of brain injury, and common symptoms -- and tips on what to do if you or a loved one has been involved in an accident involving any kind of head or brain injury.

What Is Brain Injury?

Terms like "head injury," "brain injury," "head trauma," and "traumatic brain injury" are often used interchangeably and refer to some kind of physical trauma to the head and brain -- like a blow, shake, penetration, or bump -- that causes a disruption to the brain's normal functioning. Brain injuries can range from mild to severe, and symptoms can be subtle. You don't have to be involved in a major accident to suffer brain injury. Common causes of brain injury include car accidents, slipping and falling, contact sports (i.e. football), non-contact sports (i.e. bicycling), workplace accidents, and assaults or other acts of violence.

Concussion. A common type of traumatic brain injury is called a "concussion." A concussion is a violent shaking of the brain caused by a jolt or blow to the head. Concussions are common in contact sports (it's estimated that 30% of football players suffer a concussion every season) and can result in permanent brain damage.

"Closed" head injuries may not be obvious. Some brain injuries can be obvious, like those caused by a sharp object (a rock or bullet) penetrating the skull. But brain injuries can also result from so-called "closed" head injuries. With a closed head injury (whiplash, for example), there is little noticeable damage to the head (no external bleeding, for example), but damage to the brain can still be significant.

Acquired brain injury. This is the name given to a type of brain damage that doesn't result from external physical trauma to the head. Acquired brain injury has an internal cause and results when brain cells are deprived of oxygen. Common causes of Acquired Brain Injury include near-drowning accidents, exposure to toxic substances (like lead), and medication misuse.

Common Symptoms of Brain Injury in Adults

Symptoms of brain injury vary depending on the type and severity of the damage. Common symptoms of traumatic brain injury (caused by some external trauma to the head) include:

  • persistent headache
  • inability to concentrate
  • memory loss
  • dizziness
  • fatigue or listlessness
  • changes in mood, behavior, or cognitive function (for example, trouble reading, thinking, speaking)
  • nausea, and
  • blurred vision.

Loss of consciousness is common but not essential. It is common for brain injury sufferers to experience some period of unconsciousness after head trauma or an accident. But even very severe brain injury can occur without total loss of consciousness.

Symptoms can appear over time. Brain injuries -- particularly so-called "mild" brain injuries -- can be difficult to recognize and are commonly misdiagnosed or missed at the emergency room. A delay between the accident and the onset of symptoms is common. In fact, a brain-injured person may appear to be fine right after an accident, but may feel or act differently days or weeks later. This is why it's important to get medical attention if you suffer any kind of blow to the head, even if you feel fine or think the head trauma was "minor."

Common Symptoms of Brain Injury in Children

Brain injuries in children are commonly caused by falls, bike accidents, or participation in sports and other recreational activities. Children can also suffer brain injury through caregiver abuse ("Shaken Baby Syndrome," for example).

When children suffer brain injuries, symptoms can sometimes be harder to detect. If you're a parent, the CDC advises you to contact a doctor if your child suffers a blow to the head and you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • listlessness or tiredness
  • irritability
  • changes in eating patterns, sleep, play, or school performance
  • loss of interest in favorite toys or activities
  • loss of new skills (e.g., toilet training)
  • unsteady walking or trouble balancing, and
  • vomiting.

What to Do If You Suspect a Brain Injury

If you suspect that you or a loved one has suffered a brain injury after an accident, the first thing you should do is get proper medical treatment and advice -- even if you think the accident was "minor" or there is no obvious injury to the head. Remember, symptoms of brain injury can take a while to appear. Getting a medical evaluation is also important if you're thinking of bringing a lawsuit for brain injury, as it can help to establish the severity of the harm suffered.

For more information about what to do if you're considering bringing a lawsuit or legal claim for a head or brain injury, read Nolo's article Brain Injury Lawsuits.

For help in choosing a good personal injury attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area (click on the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to find out about the lawyer's experience, if any, with brain injury cases).

Updated by: , J.D.

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