Signs and Symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

By | March 16, 2024

Medically reviewed by Smita Patel, DO

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is any head injury that changes the way your brain normally works. Brain injuries usually result from a sudden impact or trauma to the head, such as falling, being involved in a car accident, or being hit by another person or object. Symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on the type of injury you have. A TBI can cause blood clots, bruising, and bleeding, all of which can affect your thinking, emotions, behavior, and perception.

Brain injuries can be penetrating, meaning an object is inserted through the skull into the brain. Or they may be non-penetrating, meaning an object struck the head or the head was suddenly shaken. An example of a penetrating injury is a gunshot wound, while an example of a non-penetrating injury is a blow to the head after being tackled while playing football.

TBI is most common in men, young children, and people over 75 years of age. But anyone can suffer a TBI, and there are numerous ways to get one. Recognizing the symptoms of traumatic brain injury is crucial for prompt diagnosis and treatment. Severe or untreated TBI can lead to disability or death.

Common symptoms

Healthcare providers classify the severity of a TBI as mild, moderate, or severe. Depending on the severity of the head injury, symptoms can last just a few days or a lifetime. TBI can affect many different brain functions and lead to a wide range of symptoms. And different people can experience completely different TBI symptoms.

A TBI can affect your body physically and emotionally. But you may also experience changes in your thinking, behavior and perception.

Physical symptoms may include:

Cognitive symptoms may include:

  • Loss of consciousness ranging from a few seconds (fainting) to a few months (coma) to a lifetime (persistent vegetative state)

  • Confusion or disorientation

  • Problems concentrating or remembering important information

  • Changes in sleep or difficulty waking up

Perception symptoms may include:

Emotional symptoms may include:

Mild TBI symptoms

The majority of TBIs (about 8 out of 10 cases) are mild. Healthcare providers usually refer to a mild TBI as a concussion. Concussions are usually not life-threatening and symptoms usually resolve on their own within a few days to a few weeks.

Symptoms of a concussion include a relatively brief change in the way your brain functions. Typically, a concussion causes brief confusion, memory loss, vomiting, or loss of consciousness.

However, some people will develop post-concussion syndrome. This means that the typical physical, cognitive, perceptual or emotional symptoms of a traumatic brain injury last longer than expected with a mild injury. People who have had multiple brain injuries in a short period of time are at greater risk of developing post-concussion.

It is also important to protect yourself from experiencing another traumatic brain injury if you have recently had a concussion. If you re-injure the brain before the initial injury has healed, it can lead to very dangerous swelling of the brain. This effect is sometimes called the ‘second hit’ phenomenon, which can be life-threatening.

Moderate and severe TBI symptoms

Healthcare providers consider a TBI to be moderate if it causes loss of consciousness for up to 24 hours and signs of brain trauma visible on standard imaging tests. A severe brain injury causes loss of consciousness for more than 24 hours.

The symptoms of a moderate and severe traumatic brain injury are more intense and longer lasting than those of a mild traumatic brain injury. They can lead to major changes in consciousness and responsiveness, including:

  • Minimal consciousness: Shows severe impairment of consciousness, but is still able to respond to the environment.

  • Coma: Complete inability to respond to external stimuli. A coma can last from several days to several weeks.

  • Persistent vegetative state: Lack of awareness for a period longer than a few weeks.

  • Brain Death: Inability to measure any brain activity over a long period of time.

Moderate and severe TBIs are some of the most common injury-related conditions that lead to death and long-term disability. Unfortunately, thousands of people die every year from moderate and severe TBIs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22% of adults treated in a health care facility for moderate to severe brain injuries lose their lives within five years, and 30% get worse over time. Only 26% will get better within 5 years. That said, if you hit your head or experience any other form of trauma to the brain, it is essential that you receive immediate medical treatment.

Symptoms in children

About 1 in 5 cases of TBI in children results from sports or recreational activities. Children may show unique signs of TBI. And they may be too young to communicate how they feel after an injury. Look for the following symptoms if your child has suffered a head injury:

  • Inability to be comforted or constant crying

  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns

  • Difficulty with balance or coordination

  • Inability to concentrate or pay attention

  • Reduced interest in things they once enjoyed

  • Depressed or gloomy mood

  • Loss of skills or milestones they previously achieved

  • To attack

Symptoms in older adults

Hospitalizations and deaths from brain injuries are most common in adults over 65 years of age. But brain injuries in this age group often go undiagnosed, especially if the person has other health problems that can cause similar symptoms, such as dementia.

Older adults taking blood thinners are also at increased risk of brain hemorrhage from TBI. Bleeding in the brain increases the chance that someone will die from a traumatic brain injury. If you know an older adult who has been in a fall or car accident, make sure he or she goes to the healthcare provider for evaluation and receives appropriate treatment if necessary.

When should you contact a healthcare provider?

If you have had a head injury and are experiencing headaches, weakness, vomiting, or any of the common symptoms of traumatic brain injury, contact your doctor quickly. These could be signs of a TBI. This is especially important if you have a history of concussion, as having multiple TBIs can be very dangerous.

Although you can treat most cases of mild brain injury at home, your healthcare provider will give you special care instructions to follow. People with moderate or severe TBI will likely need ongoing care.

Questions you can ask your supplier

Be sure to ask your healthcare provider the following questions after any type of head injury:

  • What home care should I follow in case of a concussion?

  • Is it okay to continue taking my regular medications if I have had a head injury?

  • When can I exercise again after a TBI?

  • What treatments do you recommend to improve my symptoms?

A quick review

A traumatic brain injury results from a sudden blow or shock to the head, disrupting the normal function of the brain. These injuries can range from mild to severe. TBI symptoms can vary but can cause physical, cognitive, and emotional changes. If you notice any changes after hitting your head, make an appointment with a healthcare provider immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment of moderate to severe brain injuries can save your life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a TBI get worse over time?

Most TBIs are mild and resolve within a few days to a few weeks. However, nearly one-third of severe TBIs in adults worsen in the five years after the initial injury. And people who suffer repeated trauma, usually concussions, can suffer long-term problems with concentration, memory and balance, among other problems.

What is the life expectancy of someone with traumatic brain injury?

Life expectancy depends on the severity of the injury. The majority of people who sustain a traumatic brain injury will recover and live full, healthy lives. However, 22% of adults who experience a serious brain injury are at risk of dying within 5 years.

Is a TBI considered a disability?

A TBI is a common cause of disability in the United States. Most mild TBIs heal within a few weeks, but moderate to severe TBIs can lead to long-term disability. People with moderate to severe TBIs may experience permanent physical, cognitive, or emotional changes.

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