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What is a Traumatic Brain Injury?

A traumatic brain, or closed head injury, occurs approximately once every 16 seconds and annually effects over 700,000 individuals in North America. By definition, a CHI is any injury caused by a blunt blow to the head, upon which the head was accelerating and suddenly stopped. Most commonly occurring in motor vehicle accidents, this injury rarely produces any focal or central lesions.

The most common symptom of head injury is a loss of consciousness after a blow to the head for even a brief period of time.

Instead, the damage is spread over the surface of the brain due to the acceleration, rotation, compression and expansion of the brain within the skull after impact. As a result, many parts of the brain are affected. Closed head injuries are not always caused by something as serious as a motor vehicle accident. In many cases, they can be caused by everyday activities like falling off roller blades, jungle gyms, or even street corner curbs. Regardless of the cause of head injury, an array of unique changes can take place in behavior and language.

How Will I Know if I Have a Head Injury?

The most common symptom of head injury is a loss of consciousness after a blow to the head for even a brief period of time. Confusion regarding the time, date, or location of the accident are also indications of brain trauma. Other salient factors are the presence of a coma, or difficulty remembering new information after waking up from a coma.

The length of unconsciousness experienced by an individual has been used to characterize the severity of head injury. If the unconsciousness lasts less than twenty minutes, and post-traumatic amnesia less than an hour, the injury is considered mild. If a person is unconscious for at least a day and post-traumatic amnesia lasts more than twenty-four hours, it is considered severe. More symptoms include tremors, spastic muscle movements, difficulty swallowing and slurred speech.

How Might a Head Injury Affect My Body?

Changes after a head injury may be physical, cognitive and/or behavioral. Physically, an individual may experience seizures or a decrease in speed and coordination of muscle movements. Muscles may also move with excessive or inadequate tension, causing tremors or spasticity. Behaviorally, an individual may become impulsive, acting without thought of consequence. Agitation, irritability, and egocentrism may also be noticed, as well as depression to the point of threats of suicide.

Cognitively, an individual may experience changes in the following six areas:

  • Attention, or the ability to hold thoughts and events in consciousness. The individual may become easily distracted. The ability to concentrate and focus on one thing at a time lessens noticeably. Language skills suffer due to decreased ability to understand what is heard and read. Expressive language is often inappropriate and confused, and ability to maintain topic is minimal.
  • Perception, or the ability to recognize features and relationships among those features. Errors in perception may yield weakness in judgment based on what is seen or heard, causing spatial organization to be difficult. Impaired perception may cause an individual to focus on one part of an object, or to neglect a portion of his visual field. Evidence of this may be seen at dinner when an individual has an entire plate of food but only eats the food on the left half until the plate is rotated.
  • Memory and Learning, which involves the storage and retrieval of information. Impairments in memory and learning will splinter to all aspects of communication, but specifically, a decrease in ability to follow multi-step directions is seen. Reading comprehension and spelling are challenged, and patients have difficulty retrieving words to express feelings. When these words are found, language is typically fragmented and non-specific. Arranging sequential facts creates obstacles, and there is little or no ability to express thoughts in a timely manner.
  • Organization or the analyzing, classifying, integrating and comparing of information. If stricken with a head injury, an individual may display poor problem solving, social judgment, or goal maintenance. Self-direction and confidence may be poor, as may be the ability to manage tasks and time. Conversational skills suffer and the ability to discern main ideas into themes becomes difficult.
  • Reasoning, or the ability to draw conclusions from past experience, may be one of the more obvious effects of a CHI. Actions and thoughts become concrete, causing impulsive and reactionary behavior. These individuals may be swayed easily, unable to understand consequences of their behavior, or demonstrate poor social judgment. Communication is impaired by socially inappropriate comments, and the understanding or expression of abstract concepts becomes difficult. Poor reasoning may affect the ability to persuade people through language, understand humor, or follow complex conversation.
  • Problem solving and judgment which involves identification of goals, the relevance of information, exploration of solutions, and the ability to select appropriate options. A poor skill set in this area causes inflexible thinking and difficulty using compensatory strategies. Behavior is often impulsive and decisions are made in a “trial and error” format.

Although the physical and behavioral effects of a head injury are serious, cognitive deficits seem to challenge family and friends more than the patients themselves.

Especially in cases of mild to moderate head injury where physical symptoms may be minimal if present at all, individuals often appear “normal.” Victims of head injury may speak clearly, walk without assistance, and drive cars. With cognitive impairments practically invisible to strangers, family members become extremely concerned for their loved ones’ safety. One of the most important things to begin accomplishing in speech therapy is increasing the patient’s awareness of his deficits. By orienting individuals to their recent changes in cognitive function, comprehensive therapy programs create coping mechanisms for everyone involved.