TBI Symptoms

Physical Symptoms
Intellectual Symptoms
Social Difficulties
Emotional Changes

Physical Symptoms

If the injury occurs to the part of the brain that controls our bodies, very obvious physical changes might be seen right away. Some people who have had a TBI experience no physical symptoms, while others display one, two or more of the following physical signs of injury: fatigue, problems sleeping, headaches, chronic pain, changes in body temperature, hormonal changes, dizziness, seizures, difficulties with balance and changes in the five senses (touch, smell, taste, vision, hearing).

When physical symptoms are very obvious and appear right away, a diagnosis might be made quickly. My son John, however, had a physical symptom that doctors did not recognize as a sign of brain injury. He had many small seizures that looked like simple "fist clenching." The doctors who saw his "fist clenching" did not recognize this as a seizure, and so John did not receive the treatment he needed.

So, physical changes can occur without being very obvious, or they can be profound and easily seen.

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Intellectual Symptoms

A blow to the head can affect the way a person thinks and processes information. For example:

  • Problems in reading may occur - individual words might be recognized, but understanding the content of what is read might be difficult or reading the material might take longer than usual.
  • Sometimes memory is affected. The person might forget things he or she normally would not, like getting lost in places that are familiar, forgetting something just read or heard or leaving the stove on after cooking a meal.
  • Sometimes, being able to pay attention becomes a problem. The person can't remain focused on a T.V. program, can't finish a task or can't sit still as long as before the injury.
  • Sometimes information is misunderstood or "processed" incorrectly. This may lead to a task being performed incorrectly, or to an unexpected emotional response that doesn't seem to relate to the circumstances.
  • If the front of the brain has been injured (the frontal lobes), problems might be noticed in the person's ability to plan ahead, to stay organized, to begin and complete tasks, to solve problems, to anticipate consequences of actions or behaviors, to regulate emotions, to act in an appropriate way or to set goals and work toward reaching them. What used to be fairly easy might now be a challenge.
  • Sometimes the injured person becomes "stuck" on a thought or an action and cannot be easily redirected. This is called "perseveration."
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Social Difficulties

Following a traumatic brain injury, a person sometimes experiences a noticeable change of personality and behavior. This can affect the injured person, as well as his or her family and the surrounding social community. Sometimes the change in behavior and personality is relatively small, but this can also cause social difficulties. Since the person still looks the same but is all of a sudden and for no obvious reason acting strangely, a change in personality or behavior won't make sense to those who know him or her.

Normal brain chemistry can become unbalanced following a TBI, which can result in difficulty with anger control, inappropriate verbal outbursts and, possibly, physical aggression. Although the injured person has little or no control of these behaviors, family members and friends do not know that, and they often become frustrated and annoyed. The injured person might not understand the frustration of his or her family and friends, which can create an escalating cycle of difficulty.

Whether the changes are large or small, friends and family members, confused by the changes, might pull back or drop away altogether. This can lead to the injured person becoming even more frustrated, angry and alienated. However, with knowledge and understanding of how a TBI affects behavior and personality, family members and friends can help the injured person to better manage social difficulties following TBI, which, in turn, helps the injured person. The necessary first step is to understand that the probable reason for these difficulties is an injury to the brain; then, appropriate help can be sought.

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Emotional Changes

A traumatic brain injury can cause a range of emotional problems. One or more of the following kinds of emotional changes might be observed:

  • Depression - which might appear as a deep, lasting sadness, or despair, or helplessness. Getting started on a project, or even getting out of bed, can become a huge challenge. Depression might cause the person to feel worthless or to perhaps become suicidal.
  • Anxiety - which might cause the person to often feel worried, agitated, jittery or overwhelmed by tasks that used to be easy. Just sitting still can become a challenge. Often, anxiety and depression go hand-in-hand after a brain injury.
  • Drugs/Alcohol Abuse - Often, people who have had a brain injury turn to substances to find relief from their symptoms. They "self-medicate" with drugs or alcohol (or both) in order to try to feel better. They are seeking relief, but their TBI-related problems only worsen with the use of these substances.

These kinds of problems can be helped by professionals who understand brain injury. The difficulty is that people with a traumatic brain injury who suffer from depression, anxiety and/or substance abuse often resist getting or accepting help.

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