Acquired Brain Injuries: Causes and Impact

This post was authored by Theresa Neumann and posted to The Eye Opener on May 17th, 2011.

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On the heels of Jason Penn’s blog regarding calling “911″ for signs of a possible stroke, I decided to introduce a variety of acquired brain injuries for further discussion in future blogs since damage to the brain results in some of the most catastrophic injuries possibly sustained by the human body with significant “collateral damage” for all of the friends and family involved in the individual’s life.

What is an “acquired brain injury”?

Wikipedia defines acquired brain injury as damage to the brain occurring after birth but not including neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, that occur later in life.  These injuries can further be divided into traumatic and non-traumatic acquired brain injuries.

Traumatic brain injuries are a result of some kind of trauma to the cranium/brain, but the actual causes can vary significantly. Trauma, in general, is the leading cause of death in the young-adult age group. An obvious example of a significant head trauma is the gunshot wound to the head sustained by Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords earlier this year. Other examples are assaults with blows to the head, falls with blows to the head, car or bicycle accidents with head injuries, sports-related head injuries/concussion, childhood playground head injuries, and even damage sustained during brain surgery. The degree of damage and permanent sequellae obviously varies as well, ranging from fully recoverable within a few days to catastrophic permanent deficits and even death. Interestingly, the amount of external damage (or lack thereof) does not necessarily reflect the damage inside the cranial vault.

Non-traumatic acquired brain injuries, on the other hand, have a wide range of etiologies not related to head trauma that have just as wide of a range of catastrophic effects and recovery times. One of these causes is a stroke, as described by Jason Penn; however, strokes can be either ischemic (blockage of blood flow to the brain by, for example, a blood clot) or hemorrhagic (when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures), and each is treated very differently!  Other possible causes are infections, brain tumors, failure of other body organs (liver, kidney), loss of oxygen delivery to the brain (heart attack, blood clot in lungs), other chemical or drug ingestions with toxic effects, aneurysm rupture, and build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood stream from other lung pathology, including smoking!

A Virtual Tour of the Brain

Described as the most complex organ in the human body, the brain has been the subject of numerous educational videos, which attempt to give the layman a better understanding of the parts and functions of the human brain. YouTube has numerous “brain anatomy” videos for you to peruse. Here’s one from the University of Bristol that does a good job of providing the basics of this incredible organ.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UukcdU258A

Effects of Brain Damage

The brain is the body’s 3-pound computer that controls every conscious and unconscious function of the body. Different areas of the brain control different cognitive, behavioral and emotional functions as well as the everyday metabolic functions of the body. Damage to specific areas of the brain result in specific functional losses, which is why someone with a “stroke” might experience numbness and weakness of one side of the body or no weakness but loss of balance or loss of vision. Larger injuries result in more brain tissue damage and more functional deficits. The object of “the game” is to rapidly diagnose the problem and rapidly treat the problem in order to minimize the amount of brain damage, and thus, minimize the functional deficits. Many acquired brain injuries progressively worsen due to different “normal” pathophysiologic mechanisms. It is imperative to intervene sooner whenever possible.

A Personal Story

My uncle had a stroke 1 month ago while working in the yard.  ”911″ was called immediately, and he was transported to the closest hospital.  He apparently had an undiagnosed abnormal heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation) that caused a large blood clot to form in the heart. This clot ultimately got pumped out into the carotid artery and lodged itself at the beginning of the middle cerebral artery on right side of his brain.  He was initially unconscious, but he later “came to”, only to deteriorate into unconsciousness again as the brain swelled from the blocked artery and infarcted brain tissue. He was transferred to another hospital that was capable of performing brain surgery, and he had back-to-back brain surgeries on 4/10 and 4/11 to try to minimize the damage. They actually had to remove a large part of his skull to allow for the brain swelling to occur without the brain’s tissue being compressed against the skull so as to prevent herniation of the brain.

He was in a coma for several days, but he is slowly making some recovery. In the meantime, he needed a tracheostomy and feeding tube in his stomach, both of which he still has. His entire left side remains completely paralyzed. It is difficult for him to stay awake, although he does seem to know who is around at any given time. My aunt, God bless her, has spent the last month at the hospital, 8 hours or more every day, and she is just exhausted. It is unclear when he will be going home or even if he will be going home. We are hoping and praying for the best recovery possible, but the future remains uncertain.

Collateral Damage

In addition to the person affected by acquired brain injury being functionally limited, whether temporarily or permanently, there is often collateral damage to himself/herself as well as to friends and family members. Emotional issues often arise, whether through mood disorders like depression and anxiety, or with actual personality changes. Those affected can become more belligerent or difficult, angry, withdrawn, and a host of other characteristics, making it very difficult on the person caring for the affected individual. The physical demands alone can overwhelm the care-provider (like bathing, toileting, feeding, transporting to appointments, etc.) and lead to care-provider stress and mood disorders.  Financially, these injuries are often devastating. Marriages end; relationships among family members suffer; sometimes, physical abuse and neglect can even occur when frustrations become overwhelming.

There are support groups available many of which can be accessed through local hospitals, associations or your health department.

Locally, you may want to visit the Brain Injury Association of Maryland and the Brain Injury Association of Washington, D.C.

Stay posted for more details on some of these causes of acquired brain injury specifically. In the meantime, do you have a story to tell?

 

Image from neuroskills.com

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