Can a person recover from a brain injury?

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Even with all the scientific advances that have been made in the medical world, a brain injury is still one of the scariest injuries a person can suffer from. Not only does it affect the patient but also their family, loved ones and friends.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a brain injury is that progress will not happen overnight. Although it is possible to make a full recovery, sometimes this is not always the case. It will be a journey that will take a lot of time and patience.

The brain is a marvellous but complex organ. Each part of it has different functions and when these are impaired the results can be life altering. 

  • Frontal Lobe – The frontal lobe is responsible for speaking, emotions, personality and judgements. 
  • Temporal Lobe – The temporal lobe is responsible for memory, understanding spoken words and hearing. 
  • Parietal Lobe – The parietal lobe is responsible for all of the five senses.
  • Occipital lobe – The occipital lobe is responsible for vision and visuospatial coordination. 
  • The brain stem – The brain stem is responsible for breathing, the heart rate and sleeping cycles. Injuries to the brain stem can be catastrophic. 

It is completely normal that in the immediate aftermath of such an injury that you will be asking how long a full recovery will take.

Unfortunately there isn’t a set time limit. The amount of time it takes for a patient to recover will depend on the severity of their injury, how quickly they are seen by a doctor and their immediate treatment. 

What is a brain injury?

A brain injury is caused by an outside force disrupting the normal brain functions. Many injuries are caused by a fall from height, a road traffic accident or a blow to the head. In most cases the patient will lose consciousness, sometimes for weeks or months.

There are several states of unconsciousness and how long these stages last for will determine how quickly a person will recover. 

  • Coma – In this stage the patient is completely unconscious. They cannot communicate. Their eyes are closed and they do not respond to pain, touch or sounds.
  • Vegetative state – Here the patient is still mostly unconscious although they may have brief moments of being awake. They may react briefly to sounds and touch and they may smile, cry or make facial expressions. Typically these are reflexes and are not controlled by the patient. They are unable to follow commands or communicate. 
  • Minimal conscious state – At this stage they may have some awareness of their surroundings. They may be able to follow simple commands or focus their eyes on an object. They may be able to communicate through gestures. 
  • Post traumatic confusional state – This stage many also include post traumatic amnesia. They may be very confused and have problems with their memory. They may also have problems forming new memories and become very forgetful. They may not be able to walk or talk. They will sleep a lot and may become very restless, agitated and emotional. 

Treatment

Each brain injury is unique and treatment will depend on the individual case.

The doctors will first treat the life threatening injuries. Once the patient is stable they will then treat any other injuries and problems as and when they arise.

The treatment will normally consist of several different aspects and will normally involve – 

  • Neurological treatments.
  • Surgical procedures.
  • Rehabilitation therapies such as, occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychotherapy and speech and language therapy. 

In the immediate aftermath of the injury the patient may need several different tests to assess the level of damage to the brain. 

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging MRI – This helps to identify any bleeding to the brain and can be used to see which parts of the brain are injured. 
  • Electroencephalograms EEG – This measures the electrical activity in the brain and can also show the location and extent of the injury. 
  • Neurological monitoring – Intracranial pressure monitors are used to track the amount of pressure in the brain and helps to monitor any swelling. A tube is placed in the brain which is attached to wires. The tube can also be used to drain excess fluid and helps to relieve excess pressure.  

Long term prognosis

Our brains do not heal themselves like a broken bone does. It can take weeks or even months to determine the extent of the damage and the long term prognosis of the patient.

Some people will go through the stages starting with a coma very quickly whereas other patients may linger at a particular stage for a significant amount of time. Others may skip over some of the steps completely.

There is a lot that we still don’t know about the brain and how it heals after significant trauma.

However we do know that – 

  • Typically the longer a patient is in a coma, the more damage to the brain that there is. This can mean that they will take longer to recover and they may be more likely to be left with some disabilities. 
  • The patient being able to visually track objects is a major sign of improvement. It is a function that a doctor will look for when a person starts to regain consciousness. 
  • The younger the patient is at the time of their injury the more likely they are to make a good recovery.
  • Brain injuries do not just affect the patient physically. There can be a lot of personality changes which will need to be taken into account when they are being treated. They may also suffer from anxiety and depression during their recovery as they come to terms with their limitations. 

How can you help?

Having a loved one suffer from a brain injury can be scary and daunting. It is a whole new world for all of you. 

  • Take some time to learn about the changes that they may experience after their injury. This can include physical, behavioural and psychological changes. Having done this research you will be more able to deal with any of these changes when they occur. 
  • It can be helpful to learn some of the skills needed to look after someone with a brain injury. This can be especially helpful for when they come home. 
  • Do not be afraid to ask the medical team any questions that you have. You should also raise any concerns that you have. Doctors understand that with a traumatic brain injury it is not just the patient that will need reassurance. 

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a brain injury is that progress will not happen overnight. Although it is possible to make a full recovery, sometimes this is not always the case. It will be a journey that will take a lot of time and patience.

The road to healing is not linear and there will be bumps and setbacks along the way but hopefully with immediate medical attention and the right treatments and therapies your loved one will have the best chance possible at a full recovery. 

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