The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as an injury “caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain.” According to the CDC, almost 300,000 people are hospitalized for TBIs each year across the United States. Leading causes for TBI hospitalizations include unintentional falls, especially for elders, and motor vehicle accidents.
Some victims report symptoms more than 20 years after the event which led to a brain injury. In fact, AARP published a piece on old head injuries that provided first-hand experiences of TBI victims who had struggles years later. Some highlights include:
These are only some examples of how a TBI can impact a person for years after their injury. Most associated these kinds of medical complications with athletes who suffer repeated head injuries during play. Yet, many other events, accidents, and situations can cause a traumatic brain injury and experience symptoms years later. The CDC and other medical professionals typically categorize symptoms into four broad categories: thinking, sensation, language, and emotion. This guide offers a closer look at the individual symptoms in these categories that TBI victims can experience years later or for years after their injury.
The ability to focus or concentrate on an object or idea is one of the cognitive functions that can be impacted in the long-term for those who suffer a TBI. You’ve probably had moments in your life when you’ve struggled to concentrate, but it was likely related to stress or things going on around you. According to the University of Washington, TBI victims who have issues focusing aren’t capable of carrying on long conversations, cannot sit still for long periods of time, find multitasking troublesome, and cannot easily finish a project.
The University of Washington also shares that concentration is a foundational skill for other cognitive functions, which means that someone who struggles with concentration after a TBI likely also has other cognitive issues.
Losing memory or gaps in memory are not uncommon for those who suffer a traumatic brain injury. Like the examples above, TBI victims can develop memory problems long after their injury. In some cases, memory loss can begin weeks or months after a brain injury and continue indefinitely. Losing long-term memories isn’t typically an issue for TBI victims. Instead, traumatic injuries more often lead to short-term memory issues. This means when a TBI victim gets exposed to new information, he or she has difficulty storing it to memory and learning it.
Sometimes, victims also cannot remember events that happened in the weeks immediately before the injury. One common memory loss related problem is gaps of missing information because they can lead to false memories. Victims’ brains try to fill in the missing gaps with other events or conversations, causing them to “remember” things that didn’t actually happen. Coping with short-term memory problems requires TBI victims to keep structured routines and depend on tools like calendars, task lists, cue cards, memory journals, and even full-time attendants to function.
A traumatic brain injury can cause changes in a victim’s personality in several different ways. The extent and specific changes in personality depend on where in the brain the injury occurred. TBIs that cause damage to the frontal lobe, temporal lobe, amygdala, and hippocampus can cause agitation, aggression, and struggles with impulse control. Increased aggression remains one of the most common traumatic brain injury symptoms victims face years later. In fact, research shows more than 35 percent of TBI victims report increased aggression, and some research estimates more than 71 percent of TBI victims suffer from increased aggression.
In addition to feelings of anger and associated outbursts, TBI victims can find it difficult, if not impossible, to act appropriately in social situations, causing embarrassment to friends and family members in some cases. Some examples include hurtful language, insensitivity, and a disregard for social boundaries. Personality changes that occur as a result of a TBI can disrupt a household, and hurt close relationships, causing massive stress for victims and their loved ones. Unfortunately, no drugs have been approved to treat these changes, and non-drug interventions haven’t been successful.
The International Brain Injury Association (IBIA) reports that those who suffer traumatic brain injuries often suffer from sensory disorders, including photosensitivity, sometimes simply called light sensitivity. The range is large, but somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent of TBI victims report light sensitivity as a continuing long-term symptom of their injury.
Veterans are especially vulnerable to photosensitivity. Among United States veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered blast-related TBIs 77 percent report light sensitivity.
Some victims become sensitive to all types of light, while others only suffer symptoms when they come in contact with fluorescent light. This condition can impede a person’s ability to participate in daily activities and prevent them from working.
Sometimes light sensitivity goes away on its own, other times TBI victims must cope with its symptoms indefinitely. According to the IBIA, common symptoms of light sensitivity include:
Light sensitivity is a serious condition with no great treatment option. Many victims wear sunglasses, and doctors may prescribe tinted lenses.
Hearing loss and noise sensitivity are two other sensory issues that can plague TBI victims for years after their injury. Like photosensitivity, hearing loss and noise sensitivity can improve without intervention. Little research has been done on hearing issues related to TBI injury, but researchers do know that hearing problems most often occur when the brain’s temporal lobe has been injured.
According to hearing specialists, other auditory problems that can stay with TBI victims for years or life include:
Although research is scarce regarding the link between hearing issues and traumatic brain injuries, doctors do know that in almost 60 percent of all cases, the TBI led to Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD)—that is, the brain cannot properly process sounds. In other cases, the impact of a traumatic brain injury causes one or more of the small bones in the ear to break or loosen, or the impact of injury ruptures the thin cochlear membranes. Hearing problems are also common after a blast-related TBI, making veterans susceptible to hearing loss and tinnitus. Unlike other sensory issues, may auditory issues after a TBI occur on one side of the head at a time.
Estimates vary based on the study, but among those who suffer traumatic brain injuries, 30 to 70 percent experience chronic sleep disturbances. Keep in mind that even a concussion causes some of these lifelong sleep troubles; victims don’t need to have a severe TBI to struggle with sleep issues. Some TBI victims report insomnia and others report excess fatigue or drowsiness, known as hypersomnia. Studies differ in regards to which one occurs more often, but most agree that approximately 75 percent of all TBI patients develop some type of sleep disorder within six months after their injury.
Treating sleep disorders that occur after a TBI can be tricky for doctors. Other underlying issues can also impact a person’s sleep, especially if a person suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the event that caused their brain injury. For example, depression, anxiety, and physical pain can all affect a person’s sleep patterns in negative ways. Doctors sometimes prescribe different types of medicine to help reduce issues, but TBI victims often need behavioral therapy, counseling, meditation, or a combination of the three to improve their sleep.
The link between traumatic brain injuries and depression and anxiety has been a hot research topic for those who study TBIs. Studies show that TBI victims need to seek testing for psychiatric disorders regularly after injury, because some TBI victims have shown symptoms almost six years past their date of injury.
Psychiatric Times, reporting about a landmark study on mental illness and TBI victims, reveals that 49 percent of those who suffered a moderate to severe TBI experienced some type of psychiatric illness in the first six months after their injury, followed by 34 percent of those who suffered a TBI. The study also found that TBI victims experience mood disorders, like anxiety and depression, more often than any other type of psychiatric illness or condition, with major depression as the most common.
In fact, depression can be so serious for TBI victims that approximately 15 percent attempt suicide within five years after their injury. Accident victims, veterans, athletes, domestic violence survivors, and others who commonly suffer a TBI, can also suffer PTSD from the trauma of the event. All of these things can work together and make it difficult for a TBI victim to function. Many victims express dissatisfaction with work.
Up to 25 percent of TBI victims report losing their sense of taste and smell, and some studies report up to 30 percent experience loss of smell. A sense of smell informs a person’s taste, so the two go hand-in-hand. One Canadian study gives hope to those who experience a traumatic brain injury: the majority of participants gained their sense of smell back within 12 months after their injury. Yet, in another rare case, a patient didn’t recover the loss of smell, called anosmia, for nine years post-injury.
Researchers believe that the length of time it takes a TBI victim to regain their smell after an injury is related to how well the nerve fibers in the nose regenerate and reconnect to the central neurons which control smell. You might think losing your sense of smell and taste isn’t a serious long-term impact, yet it’s interconnected with other post-concussive issues.
The loss of olfactory function also comes with anxiety for many TBI victims. Even when the sense of smell returns, the anxiety from the loss can remain for much longer. Additionally, losing one’s sense of smell can lead to other injuries from cooking accidents, the inability to smell gas or smoke, or eating spoiled food.
If you suffered a traumatic brain injury from a traffic accident, an unintentional fall, domestic violence, sports, or any other reason, you need to constantly remain aware of how you are feeling and report changes to your doctor as soon as possible.
When your injury occurred because of the negligence or intentional harm of another party, it’s usually wise to consult with an experienced lawyer. An attorney can help you get the compensation you need, so you can afford the care you deserve for long-term complications of a traumatic brain injury.