Heads Up: What You Need To Know About Brain Injuries

Vaness Monteiro headshot

by Vanessa Monteiro


It’s a no-brainer, your brain is the most important organ in your body, responsible for controlling the actions your body takes to keep you alive and well. When your brain is injured it can have a severe impact on your life and these injuries can happen quite easily. In 2013, about 2.8 million brain injuries were reported in the United States as a result of trauma, a cause as intense such as a motor vehicle accident or as commonplace as a fall (1).

Did you know?
The reason your brain is prone to injury is that it is quite a delicate organ, having a consistency similar to egg whites or jelly.

Billions of long neurons (nerve cells) link together, and with other cells in your body, to form the trillions of connections your brain uses to keep your mind and body running. Your skull is the primary defense against brain injury, protecting your brain from outside trauma. Unfortunately, there are times when even your natural helmet is not enough, and a brain injury may occur. When dealing with a brain injury, it is important to get the right healthcare support to recover, and it’s also great to know what natural methods and treatments are available to support your recovery.

What causes a brain injury?

Brain injury occurs when the neurons in your brain are damaged, or the connections between the neurons are broken. This can be caused by a variety of reasons, but they are primarily categorized as Acquired (or Non-Traumatic) Brain Injuries (ABI) or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI)

An acquired brain injury is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as damage to the brain that occurs after birth (i.e., not related to a birth defect or degenerative disease). Most commonly, this term is used to describe brain injuries that have non-traumatic causes. Many non-traumatic cases are caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, whether it is a total loss (cerebral anoxia) or reduced flow of oxygen (cerebral hypoxia), and this triggers brain cell death. Hypoxic brain injuries can sometimes be difficult to diagnose if the brain is receiving enough oxygen to maintain its basic functions (2) but will often show some mild symptoms such as inattentiveness or uncoordinated movements. (3)

close up of doctor writing on chart and looking at brain scan

Brain injury occurs when the neurons in your brain are damaged, or the connections between the neurons are broken.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

For a traumatic brain injury, the damage is caused by an external force. This impact can damage your brain cells directly or break apart the connection between the brain cell neurons. Depending on the resulting damage, TBIs are broken down into different categories (4):

  • Concussion: There has been difficulty in the medical field determining specifically when a brain injury is categorized as a concession. This is partly because there are no physical or structural signs through testing to show when a concussion has occurred (like a brain bleed) (5). Instead, it is defined more by complaints such as dizziness, nausea, reduced attention and concentration, memory problems, and headache. In a severe case, a concussion can also cause you to lose consciousness.
  • Catastrophic Brain Injury: Such as a concussion, these injuries have a quick onset but are a result of intracranial bleeding (bleeding within the skull) or cerebral contusions (bruising on the brain from blood vessel damage). These can be more dangerous and require immediate medical attention in case intervention is necessary. Signs that a bleed or bruising in the brain has occurred after trauma to the head includes (6):
    • Headache that gets worse and does not go away
    • Weakness, numbness or decreased coordination
    • Repeated vomiting or nausea
    • Slurred speech
  • Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE): The diagnosis of CTE is more of a disorder that appears years or decades after the initial injury (7). These typically develop progressively (Roberts) after repetitive brain injuries that occur earlier in life (such as for professional football players or boxers). In the early stages, we may see symptoms such as speech problems or impaired balance, and these may progress to more debilitating symptoms like ataxia (uncoordinated muscle movements impacting actions such as walking and eye movements), slowness of movements, or tremors (8).

Did you know?
A traumatic brain injury can occur, even without a direct hit or impact to your head. Learn more about What happens when you have a concussion?” through this TEDEd Video, narrated by Clifford Robbins, a neurology specialist in the field of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (9).

Recognizing when you may have a brain injury

Figuring out if you have experienced a brain injury can be difficult because where your brain has been injured can affect what symptoms you experience. In general, signs that you may be experiencing a brain injury fall under the four main categories listed below:

List of symptoms that your body can experience when you suffer from brain injury. (6)

The majority of brain injuries that are reported are of mild severity. The symptoms for these typically resolve in a short period of time (hours) but there are cases where symptoms continue for weeks or months. With a brain injury, it is particularly important to acknowledge and address your symptoms. Toughing it out and continuing on normally when you have an injury can make symptoms worse. (10)

The road to recovery for a brain injury

Though most symptoms of a mild brain injury resolve quickly, up to 80 percent of people continue to have some persistent complaints. This persistence is referred to clinically as Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS) and those who suffer may exhibit headaches, fatigue, anxiety, and cognitive problems (impaired memory, attention, and concentration) (11). To help reduce your risk of PCS, be patient with your body while it heals. Use some of the suggestions below to aid your road to recovery.

Maintaining your energy levels

During brain injury recovery, fatigue (tiredness and lack of energy) can be a common symptomatic experience. Conserving energy is important not only to aid in your recovery but also to help manage your daily tasks during this time. (12)

  • Prioritize your time and energy: Make sure you are electing to use your energy on things that are the most important or more urgent first. Ask for help if you cannot do everything on your own.
  • Pace and take breaks: Try to be proactive, and rest before you exhaust yourself. You can try breaking up a task into smaller stages to allow yourself rest during the task.
  • Plan and organize your day: Think about the time of day when you have the most energy and plan your errands accordingly. Don’t forget to assign yourself extra time for jobs that may be a bit more difficult while you are recovering. Keep in mind when you will have help available from other people and plan to do things based on that timing…
  • Position yourself well: During recovery, certain body positions, noises or environments can be more taxing on your body. Be aware of what surroundings work best for you if you need to do a task that requires extra effort or concentration.

Taking care of your brain

Your brain needs the energy to repair any damage after a brain injury, but there are other ways you can support it while it works to reconnect to aid the recovery process.

  • Protecting yourself from a future brain injury is extremely important during recovery (and—in general—for the future).
  • With repeated brain injuries you are more prone to long-term problems so it’s vital to keep your head protected, perhaps with additional equipment when you play a sport or avoiding certain activities in the future.
  • It is a good idea to avoid physically demanding activities, but keep in mind that tasks requiring concentration can also be hard on your brain during recovery (such as playing a video game or doing calculations at work). Don’t be afraid to postpone these tasks or take some time off while you recover.
  • Listing to music can help your brain reconnect as multiple studies have shown music stimulates the brain neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to make new connections). This results in improvements to cognition and motor skills after a brain injury. (13)
  • Your memory may be a bit shaky so try writing things down to help yourself remember things to do.
  • Essential oils such as Frankincense can be used as a natural remedy for brain injury recovery by reducing inflammation in the area.
Man laying with headphones on smiling

Listing to music can help improve cognition, motor skills and general recovery after a brain injury. (13)

Brain food for recovery

Your brain can be quite a hungry puppy, consuming about 20 percent of your body’s resting metabolic rate (RMR) – all the energy your body needs on a boring, no-activity kind of day (14). So, it is no surprise that after a brain injury it is important to make sure you are getting the right nutrients for a speedy recovery.

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Recent studies have shown that nutritional support of omega-3s can help prevent and treat the effects of mild traumatic brain injuries (link).
  • Reduce your alcohol intake or stop drinking altogether. Alcohol has a stronger effect while you recover from a brain injury since your tolerance is lowered. Though it may be tempting to self-medicate with alcohol (or other substances) for the physical or emotional pain you are experiencing during recovery, this will only worsen your symptoms in the long term. (15)
  • Get that B3 vitamin: Preliminary studies on animals have shown giving vitamin B3 after a TBI reduced behavioral and memory impairments (16). As a supplement, vitamin B3 is usually given in the form of niacin (typically as part of a combination vitamin B supplement). Niacin can also be added through your diet, by including protein-rich foods such as yeast, meat, fish and eggs. These foods contain the essential amino acid tryptophan which your body uses to convert into niacin.
  • Increase your antioxidants: With a brain injury, your body can sometimes go under oxidative stress – a state where there are too many free radicals that cause damage in your body, and your body is unable to cope. This type of stress can impact your recovery negatively, but studies have shown the use of low molecular weight antioxidants (LMWA) can help combat this issue (17). There is a variety of LMWA such as lipoic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, and carotenoids (18).
variety of fruits and vegetables

Preliminary studies on animals have shown giving vitamin B3 after a TBI reduced behavioral and memory impairments (16).

Though your body does its best to protect your brain, accidents happen which can result in a brain injury. Pay heed to the signs and symptoms to look out for should you ever get bonked on the head. Remember to give your brain as well as your body rest if you are recovering from a brain injury—being mindful is the best way to mind your brain’s health as you recover.

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  1. Taylor CA, Bell JM, Breiding MJ, Xu L. Traumatic Brain Injury–Related Emergency Department Visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths — United States, 2007 and 2013. MMWR Surveill Summ 2017; 66 (No. SS-9): 1–16. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6609a1
  2. Butterworth RF. Hypoxic Encephalopathy. In: Siegel GJ, Agranoff BW, Albers RW, et al., editors. Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. 6th edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott-Raven; 1999. Site: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK28214/
  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Cerebral Hypoxia Information Page. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Cerebral-Hypoxia-Information-Page. Date last modified: Thu, 2018-06-21
  4. K Blennow, J Hardy, & H Zetterberg. (2012). The Neuropathology and Neurobiology of Traumatic Brain Injury. Neuron. 76. 886-899. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2012.11.021
  5. McCrory P, Meeuwisse W, Johnston K, et al. Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport: the 3rd International Conference on Concussion in Sport held in Zurich, November 2008. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2009; 43: i76-i84. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2009.058248
  6. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Traumatic Brain Injury & Concussion: Signs and Symptoms. https://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/symptoms.html. Page last reviewed: February 25, 2019
  7. Roberts GW, Allsop, D Bruton C. The occult aftermath of boxing. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry, 1990; 53: 373–78. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.53.5.373
  8. McKee AC, Cantu RC, Nowinski CJ et al. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy in athletes: progressive tauopathy after repetitive head injury. J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 2009 Jul;68(7):709-35. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1097/NEN.0b013e3181a9d503
  9. O Riley, David & A Robbins, Clifford & C Cantu, Robert & Stern, Robert. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy: Contributions from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Brain Injury 2015. 29. 154-63. DOI: 10.3109/02699052.2014.965215
  10. J F, McArthur D L, Silverman T A, Jayaraman M, Naravan R K, Wilberger J E, Povlishock J T. Epidemiology of brain injury, Neurology and Trauma. 1996. New York, McGraw-Hill. Online: https://books.google.ca/books?lr=&id=ASu9Kf8g-54C
  11. R.C.W. Hall, R.C. Hall, M.J. Chapman Definition, diagnosis, and forensic implications of postconcussional syndrome. Psychosomatics, 46 (2005), pp. 195-202. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.psy.46.3.195
  12. Maritz, Emily; van Beuning, Nina; and Smith, Rivkah. Save your energy with the four P’s. Occupational Therapy Education Tools (2018). 17. Site: https://commons.pacificu.edu/otet/17
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  15. Jay, G. Minor Traumatic Brain Injury Handbook: Diagnosis and Treatment. 2000. New York: CRC Press. Online: https://books.google.ca/books?id=hg3OBQAAQBAJ
  16. Michael R. Hoane, Stacy L. Akstulewicz, and James Toppen. Treatment with Vitamin B3 Improves Functional Recovery and Reduces GFAP Expression following Traumatic Brain Injury in Rats. Journal of Neurotrauma. Nov 2003. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1089/089771503770802871
  17. Shohami, E., Beit-Yannai, E., Horowitz, M., & Kohen, R. (1997). Oxidative Stress in Closed-Head Injury: Brain Antioxidant Capacity as an Indicator of Functional Outcome. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism, 17(10), 1007–1019. https://doi.org/10.1097/00004647-199710000-00002
  18. Grune T., Schröder P., Biesalski H.K. () Low Molecular Weight Antioxidants. In: Grune T. (eds) Reactions, Processes. The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry, vol 2O. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. Online: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/b101147