Research into traumatic brain injuries (TBI) has increased dramatically in the past decade. However, much remains unknown about TBI, and myths abound regarding the causes, symptoms and best treatments for these serious injuries.
After a serious accident, it is important to know the difference between the popular myths about TBI and the facts. Here are 10 common brain injury myths and the realities behind them:
“But you don’t look injured!” is a refrain that TBI survivors hear all too often. In fact, any physical injuries associated with a TBI often heal far more quickly than the mental, emotional and cognitive problems. A person with a TBI may look just like everyone else on the outside, but still struggle with learning, remembering, thinking, communicating, movement and sleep.
A concussion occurs when a blow to the head damages the brain tissue inside the skull. Concussions are not always apparent, but they can cause lasting or even permanent damage – especially to children and young adults, whose brains are still developing. While a concussion is healing, it is crucial to avoid reinjuring the head.
There is no predictable timeline for recovery from a TBI. Two people who suffer injuries of similar severity may heal at very different rates and experience very different outcomes, depending on their personal physiology and the care they receive. For many people, some effects of a TBI are permanent – the person may heal, but they will never be quite the same.
Just like there is no set time for recovery from a TBI, there is no perfect correlation between how hard a person “works” to recover and how well or how quickly they regain thinking, learning and motor functions. While early intervention and treatment can lead to a more complete recovery, the speed of that process or the “leaps” the person makes in regaining abilities are not an indicator of the person’s willingness or unwillingness to work hard to get well.
For many years, medical professionals assumed that a concussion or other TBI couldn’t occur unless the patient was “knocked out.” Now, however, studies have shown that a TBI can occur even if the injured person never loses consciousness. In fact, only about 10 to 20 percent of children who suffer a concussion ever lose consciousness. Being knocked out should not be used as an indicator of whether the person has a brain injury or how serious it is. Instead, medical testing should be performed promptly.
Even a “mild” concussion can have noticeable and lingering detrimental impacts on mood, thought, learning, sleep, balance, coordination and communication. In about 10 percent of cases of mild concussion, the brain is permanently changed and the symptoms last indefinitely. Lack of hospitalization or medical care should not be understood to mean that a blow to the head was “not a big deal.”
Wearing a helmet that is in good condition and that is designed for the activity for which the person is wearing it can help prevent skull fractures, keep objects from penetrating the skull and reduce the severity of certain brain injuries. However, while a helmet can make a concussion less severe, it should not be trusted to prevent a concussion entirely.
Although excessive sleepiness or an inability to stay awake can indicate a serious brain injury, once a doctor has examined a TBI patient and permitted the person to go home, sleep can actually help the brain retain memories and recover more quickly, according to certain studies. Always seek medical attention immediately if the person falls asleep or loses consciousness inappropriately or cannot stay awake despite trying to do so.
The symptoms of a concussion can take 48 to 72 hours or longer to fully appear, especially if a person is in shock when the concussion occurs – for instance, if a brain injury takes place during a car accident or other traumatic event. In addition, the symptoms of a brain injury may be subtle at first. Having a headache or feeling “off” are commonly reported symptoms that many people do not immediately associate with a TBI.
Many types of TBI, including concussions, affect the brain’s function but not its structure. In other words, they won’t show up on a CT scan or an MRI that shows the structure of the brain. Instead, a qualified health professional should carefully examine the person’s behavior and cognitive functions in addition to performing testing before making a diagnosis of brain injury.