Head Injury Explained: What You Need to Know
Head injuries are particularly worrisome for a number of reasons. This is especially for ones that result in traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Not only are these injuries highly dangerous in the short term—they may have devastating long-term effects.What is a head injury, really? What are the long-term effects of a head injury? How likely is a head injury to cause long-lasting effects? These are just a few of the questions about these traumatic injuries that both the injured and their loved ones have to consider.
Head Injury Defined
A head injury is any injury that affects the brain, skull, scalp, or other part of the head. These injuries can have numerous effects on the body based on the nature of the trauma. Common types of head injuries include closed head injuries and open head injuries.
Head injuries can be caused by a variety of traumatic events. For example, whiplash is a common cause of head injuries affecting the brain, otherwise known as traumatic brain injuries. Other common causes of head injury include:
- Slip and fall accidents;
- Vehicular crashes;
- Physical assaults;
- Sports-related activities; and
- Accidental blows to the head.
In the following sections, we’ll discuss the different symptoms of head injuries, the two major types of head injuries, and other important head injury facts.
Head Injury Symptoms
Head injury symptoms can vary greatly from one case to the next—even when the circumstances of two injuries are similar. Head injury symptoms can appear almost immediately, a few hours after the injury, or much later during the recovery process. These symptoms can be categorized by severity.
Minor Head Injury Symptoms
So-called “minor” head injury symptoms can include a wide range of negative effects. These symptoms are typically more manageable than moderate or severe injuries. Some minor symptoms may even be temporary—going away with sufficient time or the right treatment regimen. Others may persist for long periods of time after the injury, but still not cause severe limitations for the injured person.
Some common minor head injury symptoms include:
- Bleeding from the injury site;
- Temporary loss of consciousness;
- Mood swings;
- Temporary short-term memory loss;
- Loss of equilibrium (unable to balance); and
- Sensitivity to light and/or sound.
Depression and anxiety can also be symptomatic of a head injury. However, depression/anxiety alone may not be indicative of a head injury, or may be caused by the stress of dealing with other minor symptoms.
Moderate to Severe Head Injury Symptoms
Any sufficiently traumatic head injury can have more severe effects than the ones listed above, or even more severe versions of the same symptoms. Some of the more severe symptoms of a head injury include:
- Prolonged loss of consciousness/comas;
- Uncontrolled vomiting/nausea;
- Seizures with bodily convulsions;
- Clear fluids (such as cerebrospinal fluid) leaking from ears;
- Weakness in extremities;
- Loss of coordination;
- Impaired cognition;
- Slurred speech; and
- Permanent personality changes.
In particular, the leaking of clear fluids from the ears or nose following a head injury is a major warning sign that there is severe internal damage. Prompt head injury treatment is a must if cerebrospinal fluid is a must to minimize the potential impact of the injury.
Open Head Injury Vs Closed Head Injury
Head injuries are often divided into two broad categories: Open head injuries and closed head injuries.
- Open Head Injuries. An open head injury is any injury that penetrates the skull—potentially leaving the brain exposed. These head injuries are, obviously, extremely dangerous.
- Closed Head Injuries. A closed head injury is any head injury that doesn’t break the skull. While harder to identify than open head wounds, closed head injuries can be every bit as dangerous as their “open” counterparts.
Both of these types of head injuries are extremely dangerous. An open head injury carries additional risk of infections getting past the blood brain barrier that normally works to protect delicate brain tissue.
Meanwhile, closed head injuries carry the risk of being left undiagnosed and untreated—especially if the victim is still mobile after the injury. Concussions from these injuries, if left untreated, can lead to complications further down the line.
Head Injuries in Babies Vs Children Vs Adults
Another factor that can influence the effects of a head injury, aside from the nature of the injury and the amount of force applied, is the age of the person who is injured. Head injuries in babies, children, and adults may carry many of the same effects, but the ability of the injured person to communicate the effects they feel will vary wildly.
Head Injuries in Babies
Infants are particularly vulnerable to head injuries. Not only are their skulls still developing, they’re virtually incapable of communicating the precise nature of their distress—so an unaware parent may not be able to tell cries of pain/distress caused by cranial trauma apart from other cries.
Some warning signs to watch out for when it comes to head injuries in babies include:
- Changes in eating or nursing habits;
- Repeated crying without apparent cause;
- Changes in sleeping habits; and
If your baby has suffered any form of head trauma and you’re not sure if they have a concussion or another form of head injury, it’s best to visit a doctor to have them diagnose the issue as soon as possible. The sooner your infant can get medical attention, the better.
Head Injuries in Children
According to data from Harvard Health, the most common causes of head injuries in children are “motor vehicle accidents, falls, assaults, bicycle accidents and trauma related to sports.” While most head traumas in children are minor (around 90 percent, according to Harvard’s data), there are occasions where the head trauma may be more severe.
There are four primary types of severe head injuries in children classified by the Harvard article:
- Skull Fractures. Wherein the bones comprising the skull are cracked or broken. These injuries may cause bruising of the brain. In especially severe cases where the skull is dented inwards, shards of bone may become embedded in the brain.
- Epidural Hematomas. When a blood vessel carrying blood into the brain is broken and starts bleeding into the space between the skull and the brain. These hematomas grow rapidly and require swift treatment. Can result in death if severe enough.
- Subdural Hematomas. Instead of resulting from a burst blood vessel carrying blood to the brain, a subdural hematoma may occur when a blood vessel carrying blood away from the brain breaks. These hematomas grow more slowly, and can be harder to detect at the time of injury. Symptoms are similar to epidural hematomas, but take longer to manifest and get worse more slowly over time.
- Intraparenchymal Hemorrhages and Contusions. Rather than bursting blood vessels or damaging the skull, these injuries directly affect the brain itself. Can be caused by direct blows to the head or sudden shaking motions that cause the brain to impact one or both sides of the skull.
Child Head Injury: When to Worry
These head injuries can have long-lasting effects on a child that impair cognitive development. Some symptoms to watch out for include:
- Mood swings;
- Partial paralysis;
- Slurred speech;
- Inability to sleep;
- Confusion; and
If you suspect your child has suffered a severe head trauma, be sure to have a doctor conduct a thorough examination as soon as possible. Even with a clean bill of health, keep a close eye on the child for several weeks to check for warning signs of head injury, as a subdural hematoma can take days or weeks to cause visible problems.
In both babies and children, prevention is the best course of action to take when it comes to dealing with head injuries. Infants should always be handled with care to prevent shaken baby syndrome, and both children and babies should always be properly secured in a car. Whenever engaging in physical activities like sports, children should wear the appropriate safety gear (such as helmets, padding, and eye protection) to prevent injury.
Head Injuries in Adults
Fully-grown adults can be impacted by head injuries just as severely as children. However, adults generally have stronger, fully-developed skulls and the ability to convey the circumstances of their injury, which can help doctors better assess the symptoms and provide proper treatment.
Head Injury Treatments
Many head injuries can be treated by qualified medical professionals to help curtail the development of more severe symptoms. However, many people don’t know what head injury treatments might entail.
There are numerous treatments that may be applied to different types of head injuries. Some common head injury treatments include:
- Rest and Over-the-Counter Pain/Anti-Inflammatory Medication. When a head injury is especially mild, doctors may simply recommend rest and some basic over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, to help cope with the pain. However, close observation at home may still be needed to check for worsening symptoms.
- Emergency Care. Immediately following a severe head injury, first responders will examine the wound and provide emergency care as needed to limit the risk of the injury getting worse or causing secondary effects. This can include intubating the patient to ensure that breathing can continue, securing the neck to prevent motion, and other emergency measures while the patient is transported to the hospital for more extensive care.
- Prescription Medication. After a visit to the doctor, a head injury victim may be prescribed a variety of specialized medications to help limit the secondary effects of the injury. This includes diuretics to reduce fluid levels (and limit hematomas), anti-seizure drugs, strong pain medications not available as OTC options, and even coma-inducing drugs to put the patient to rest and reduce the need for oxygen or to allow for more invasive treatments.
- Surgery. Surgical procedures to remove clotted hematomas, bone fragments, or excess blood may be performed after an injury. Additionally, skull fractures may be repaired, with gaps being reinforced using artificial substitutes to replace missing plates or shards.
- Rehabilitation and Exercise. Following a severe head injury and treatment, many survivors may need to undergo rehabilitation to “learn” how to use their bodies once more. Additionally, if one of the head injury symptoms involved was a coma, the patient’s muscles may have weakened due to inactivity. In this case, exercise may be required to help the patient build up the physical strength needed to resume their normal activities. Occupational therapists may also help with speech or other skills needed for work.
Facts about the Effects of Head Injuries
While this won’t be a perfectly comprehensive list, here are some of the facts about the long-term effects of a head injury:
1: Some Effects May Last Your Entire Life
Depending on the nature of the injury, its severity, treatment received, and many other factors, a head wound can result in permanent brain damage that causes an impairment lasting the rest of your natural life.
However, this isn’t a guarantee. Recovery from long-term head injury effects can and does happen.
2: Every Head Injury Case is Unique
According to CDC estimates, there are roughly 2.87 million traumatic brain injury-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths (EDHDs) in the U.S. each year. Yet, every severe head injury case is unique in some way. The amount of force applied to the head, the location of the impact, the direction of force, the health of the injured person, the timing/quality of treatment, and an untold number of other factors can all contribute to the nature and severity of the long-term effects of the injury, as well as the odds of recovery.
This is what makes it so difficult to be sure of the long-term effects you may experience following a head injury—or how long they may last. Doctors and specialists may need to perform months of analysis to establish the full extent of your injuries, your likelihood of recovery, and what the long-term effects will be.
3: The Different Kinds of Effects That Occur Will Vary
The specific effects may vary from case to case. This can be influenced by numerous factors, such as:
- Age at the time of injury;
- The severity of the concussive trauma;
- The location of any hematomas/skull fractures;
- How healthy the injury survivor is at the time;
- Promptness of medical treatment; and
- Environmental factors at the time of injury and during treatment.
4: Some Long-Term Effects May Become More Severe
Some long-term side effects caused by a head injury may worsen. This could be due to the slow degradation of brain cells over time or because of complications from interactions with new injuries or medical conditions.
For example, a person with a head injury may later experience a seizure which, in turn, causes further damage to the brain. Or, a future blow to the head may cause an open head wound that allows bacteria to get past the protective tissues surrounding the brain (the meninges) and cause further complications.
This is why it is important for both those who have experienced a severe head injury and their loved ones to remain vigilant. Not only should the caretaker of a person with a head injury-related condition be watchful for signs that the effects are getting worse, the injured person should undergo frequent examination from a head or brain injury rehabilitation specialist.
5: The Different Kinds of Head Injuries That May Cause Long-Term Effects
Generally speaking, there are three kinds of head injuries that may lead to TBI and its long-term effects:
- Open head injuries;
- Closed head injuries; and
- Crushing Injuries.
We covered the first two earlier in this article, but not the third.
When the brain is compressed between two objects, it is called a crushing injury. These injuries can result in severe trauma to the base of the skull or neck as well as the brain. Common short-term effects include severe bleeding and skull fractures.
Each of these head injury types can cause severe, long-lasting effects.
How to Become Legally Covered for a Head Injury
One concern for any major head injury case is how to pay for treatment—especially when someone else is at fault for the injury. Making a case for a head injury claim can be difficult, even under the best circumstances.
There are numerous hurdles to clear when filing a head injury claim, such as:
- Establishing the Cause of the Injury. Filing a lawsuit means finding and suing the party responsible for your injuries. While the responsibility for the injury may be obvious to you, there has to be sufficient proof of malicious or negligent action by that party to support your case to an impartial third party.
- Proving the Extent to Which the Injury Has Caused Harm. The extent of the head injury symptoms you experience have an impact on your ability to file a claim. If there isn’t a sufficient loss from the injury, it may be hard to earn worthwhile compensation for it. There needs to be provable harm caused—whether that’s a loss of quality of life, ability to earn income, or large medical expenses necessary to treat the injury.
- Deciding Whether to Pursue Indirect Injury Costs. Should you pursue punitive damages against the responsible party to encourage them to correct the malicious or negligent behaviors that led to the injury? Does your pain and suffering caused by the injury warrant additional compensation above and beyond your direct monetary losses from missed wages and medical treatment/therapy bills? You may want to consult with a personal injury lawyer to examine whether your case should include additional costs.
Remember this: head injury cases are incredibly complex. Moreover, they aren’t always won just on the facts of the case, but on the peculiarities of the law in the city/state where the injury occurred and on the perception of the case.
For example, many states impose a time limit on when a head injury victim can file a lawsuit for their injuries (also known as a statute of limitations). The exact amount of time allowed between the injury and when the claim can be filed may vary from state to state and depending on extenuating circumstances such as time of discovery for the injury and the fault (some states only start counting down from the time the injury or the fault for it is “discovered”).
Cases may also hinge on the testimony of witnesses to the incident that caused the injury—testimony that may be highly subjective.
It’s important to have a dedicated personal injury attorney on hand to act as a legal expert when pursuing a head injury claim. These attorneys can help you evaluate your case, file the relevant legal documentation, and argue the merits of your case before the court to counter any legal experts the defense might hire.
How Long after a Head Injury is it Safe to Sleep?
One common question that head injury survivors (and their loved ones) have is “How long after a head injury is it safe to sleep?” It’s a natural concern for those who are worried about falling into a coma after a head injury. Traditional wisdom advised keeping people with concussions awake to avoid this very thing.
However, many doctors strongly recommend plentiful rest as a part of any head injury treatment, as sleep is important to preserving brain function (and minimizing the need for oxygen, which may be restricted after a concussion with a hematoma). So, as noted by Healthline, “current medical advice supports getting rest and sleep after a concussion” so long as there aren’t any major immediate symptoms.
Basically, as long as speech, ability to walk, and ability to focus aren’t impaired, it should be safe to sleep after a head injury. However, it may be advisable to have someone wake the concussed person up once or twice during the night just to verify that they can be roused.
With over a million traumatic brain injuries occurring each year in the U.S., it’s vital for everyone to be as informed as possible about the potential effects of long-term brain injuries and how to cope with them.
So, please, help raise awareness about brain and spinal cord injuries, be there for your loved ones, and learn more by reading our brain injuries page or using the live chat box at the top of the screen!
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