How long does it take to recover from a traumatic brain injury?

When you or a loved one suffers from a traumatic brain injury it is completely normal for you to question whether a full recovery is possible and how long this will take.

Unfortunately in many cases it isn’t known whether a full recovery is possible for many months or even sometimes years. However we do know that there are typically several stages in the first part of recovering from a major brain injury

There is still so much that is unknown about the brain and not only how it works but how it heals after a trauma. It can be frustrating when a medical professional cannot give you a definitive answer on how long the healing process will take or even if a person will be able to fully recover.

Initial stages of recovery  

In the immediate aftermath swelling, bleeding and changes in the brain chemistry affects the function of the healthy brain tissue. Over time, as this starts to heal, the patient should start improving and there will hopefully be some steady progress. 

  • Coma – Many people after suffering from a traumatic brain injury spend some time in a coma. This can last for days, weeks or even months. In this stage the patient is completely unconscious. They cannot communicate and they cannot react to any stimulus including pain, touch or sound. 
  • Vegetative State – The patient is still unconscious but may have brief moments of being awake. They may also react briefly to sounds and touch. They may also smile or cry but this is normally a reflex reaction and is not controlled by them. They are not able to communicate or follow commands. 
  • Minimal Conscious State – At times the patient may be able to follow commands and they have some awareness of their surroundings. They may start to track objects with their eyes and may start to communicate. 
  • Post Traumatic Confusional State – The patient may be very confused and disorientated. They may also be experiencing post traumatic amnesia and also struggle to form new memories. They may not be able to walk or talk. Fatigue will more than likely be present. Restlessness and agitation may also be present. 

Length of recovery  

There are no set time limits for these stages. Some patients will go through them quickly whilst others may stall at one stage for a period of time. It is also possible for them to skip over stages completely. 

Typically the longer a patient is in a coma the greater the damage to their brain and the longer the recovery process will be. It is stated that the most amount of recovery happens within the first six months post injury. Off course healing continues after this but the speed of it may slow down. 

Once the patient is fully awake the rehabilitation process can take many years. Some people will get back to full health although the more severe the injury is the higher chance there is that a full recovery will not be possible. 

Rehabilitation therapies are vital for the best chance of a full recovery. This starts with physiotherapy to reduce the risk of the muscles hardening and once the patient is awake continues with more intense physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy.

Depending on what part of the brain the damage has occurred it will affect what bodily functions are affected. There are five sections of the brain – 

  • Frontal Lobe – When this part of the brain is damaged it can affect speaking, emotions, personality and judgements. 
  • Temporal Lobe – This controls the memory, understanding, spoken words and hearing. 
  • Parietal Lobe – This part is responsible for the five senses. Hearing, Touch, Smell, Taste and Sight. 
  • Occipital Lobe – This controls vision and visuospatial coordination. 
  • Brain Stem – The brain stem is responsible for the heart rate, breathing and sleeping cycles. Damage to this part can often be catastrophic and a full recovery is unlikely. 

Injury to the brain is not just related to physical disabilities. A patient may learn to walk and talk again. They may be able to return to work and lead a relatively normal life but could for example have long term problems with their memory or slurred speech. 

Common long term problems in brain injury patients are – 

  • Headaches
  • Poor memory
  • Poor concentration 
  • Poor coordination
  • Loss of muscle strength and tone. 
  • Slow speech
  • Words finding difficulty
  • Seizures
  • Bladder and bowel control
  • Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. 

Long Term Outlook

It will be hard for any medical professional to predict how much of a recovery a patient will make and the length of time this will take.

Two patients with the same injury will heal in different times and will both have a different long term prognosis.

Many factors come into play with the recovery from a brain injury including –

  • The age of the patient
  • Their health before the injury
  • The severity of the injury. 

Research has shown that two years post injury – 

  • 30% of people still need assistance with daily tasks.
  • A common long term effect is trouble with thinking, including forming new memories. 
  • 25% of patients have depression. This can be partly from the injury and partly due to the massive changes in their quality of life. 
  • Half of the people who were living alone before their injury go back to living independently. 
  • 30% go back to work although this may not be the same job that they had before their injury. 

There is still so much that is unknown about the brain and not only how it works but how it heals after a trauma. It can be frustrating when a medical professional cannot give you a definitive answer on how long the healing process will take or even if a person will be able to fully recover.

However with receiving immediate medical attention and the right rehabilitation hopefully they will be able to return to their normal daily life within time, even if it does look a little different. 

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