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Traumatic Brain Injury Part I: Causes and Effects of TBI

A traumatic brain injury is defined as an alteration in brain function caused by an external force. Traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, have become a huge nationwide problem, so much so that in 2010 there were 2.5 million emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and/or deaths associated with TBIs (alone or in conjunction with other injuries). The leading cause of TBIs is falls, but the biggest cause of TBI-related deaths in the United States is motor vehicle accidents.

Why are motor vehicle accidents particularly likely to cause a brain injury? The force with which the human body is propelled in an automobile accident--even one that occurs at relatively low speeds--can cause forceful contact of the head with objects such as the steering wheel, dashboard, window, etc. The forceful impact of a head into any of these objects would be enough to cause at least a mild TBI, a concussion, and possibly a moderate to severe TBI, resulting in loss of consciousness and possibly permanent brain damage. Unfortunately, sometimes the deployment of airbags during an accident causes a traumatic brain injury, either due to a malfunction or to the way in which the airbags hit the people in the front seats. Sometimes a traumatic brain injury can occur from a non-contact injury, such as whiplash. If someone's head jerks forcefully enough in an accident, their brain will hit the inside of their skull, causing a TBI.

Most traumatic brain injuries are mild, such as concussions. The typical symptoms are head or neck ache, nausea, dizziness, ringing in the ears, tiredness, sensitivity to light and/or sound, and difficulty with concentration. In moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries, the initial headache may get worse and not go away; there may be repeated bouts of vomiting and nausea; convulsions or seizures could develop; slurred speech, dilated pupils, and an inability to wake from sleep may occur, all of which could indicate a need for immediate treatment. Sometimes the injury to the brain is more subtle, and may be more difficult to diagnose. Depending upon what part of the brain is injured, a TBI can cause impaired thinking and memory loss. TBIs can also disrupt movement and balance, sometimes leading to falls and further injury. Being slightly dizzy from a head injury that also disrupts your motor coordination and balance is an accident waiting to happen.

Traumatic brain injuries can also disturb emotional functioning, causing mood swings, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and ideation. Professional football players who have suffered repeated concussions, and veterans who have been the victims of traumatic brain injuries while in combat sadly have a high incidence of these symptoms. Too many have taken their own lives while suffering from the emotional impairment caused by their traumatic brain injuries.

Because traumatic brain injuries can cause such serious health problems, prevention is the best strategy. Helmets on the playing field and the battlefield need to be made more protective through advanced research and development. With respect to motor vehicles--the biggest cause of TBI-related deaths--safety when driving is one way to lessen your chances of traumatic brain injury. Wear a seat belt, drive at the speed appropriate for the road conditions, do not allow for distractions such as texting, and never drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Also look for Part II of this series, which will be posted later this week.

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