Do You Ever Fully Recovery from a Traumatic Brain Injury?

The effects of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) can vary from mild to severe, and these injuries can occur for a number of reasons; however, no matter the extent of the damage and the cause of the injury, if you or someone you love has been diagnosed with a brain injury, there’s no doubt that you are wondering about the recovery process. Namely, you are probably wondering if you or your loved one will ever make a full recovery from a TBI, how long it will take to recover from the injury, and if the damage caused by the injury will shorten the life expectancy of you or your loved one.

The effects of a traumatic brain injury can be devastating. Even mild cases can cause numerous repercussions that can impact a patient’s physical and mental health. Understanding the recovery process – and the likelihood of making a full recovery – can be extremely helpful for patients and their loved ones, as this information can help them prepare for what to expect, as well as increase the chances of recovery, and speed up the rate of the recovery process.

Brain Injury and Recovery

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is classified as a sudden injury that causes damage to a person’s brain. The injury can occur as a blow, a bump, or a jolt to the head. It can also occur as a result of a penetrating injury to the head, such as a gunshot wound. The hit to the head or the action of the body causes the head and the brain to quickly move back and forth, and the sudden movement can result in the brain twisting or bouncing around in the skill, can cause chemical changes within the brain, or can stretch out and damage the brain cells. There are three main types of brain injuries, including:

  • Mild TBI or concussion
  • Moderate TBI
  • Severe TBI

Mild TBI or concussions account for the majority of brain injuries in the United States; however, despite the term “mild” and though the injuries usually aren’t life-threatening, mild TBI and concussions are still severe and require immediate medical attention. Moderate and severe traumatic brain injuries can cause long-term or permanent complications. For all three types of brain injuries, every aspect of a patient’s life – as well as the lives of his or her loved ones – can be negatively impacted.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions that surround traumatic brain injuries and the recovery process, and these misconceptions often make people assume that the impact is permanent. While for some patients, this may be the cases, the reality is that the large majority of TBI victims can and do make immense strides in the recovery process. In fact, patients can and do make full recoveries – even those who have been diagnosed with moderate and severe TBIs. While the process may take years, full-recovery is possible.

Treatments for Traumatic Brain Injury

As with all injuries, there are several factors that will impact a patient’s likelihood of making a full recovery from a brain injury. In the case of a TBI, the severity of the injury is one of the biggest factors that will impact a patient’s recovery process; however, there are other factors that will also influence the recovery process, such as the type of treatments that are used, a patient’s adherence to treatment protocols, as well as his or her outlook on the recovery process; for example, the more positive a patient is, the more likely it is that he or she will have a better outcome, while constant negativity can slow the healing process and reduce the chances of making a full recovery.

The following are some of the treatments that patients may be advised to include in their protocol that can help to improve their rate of recovery, as well as their chances of fully recovering following the diagnoses of a TBI.

Active Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is said to be one of the most successful treatments for traumatic brain injury. The mechanism the brain uses to rewire the nerve cells and create new neural pathways, neuroplasticity is said to be one of the leading factors that contributes to a TBI patient’s recovery. Research studies have found that repetitive actions activate neuroplasticity, and that this sparks alterations within the brain. As such, actively engaging in neuroplasticity on a regular basis can help to not only speed up the rate of recovery, but can help to boost a patient’s chance of making a full recovery following a TBI diagnosis.

Engage in Physical, Occupational, and Speech Therapy

One of the most effective ways for a TBI patient to activate neuroplasticity and regain his or her lost physical abilities is by engaging in physical therapy (PT). PT has been shown to help patients rebuild their physical strength, improve their coordination, and enhance their flexibility following a TBI. Furthermore, PT increases blood flow to the brain, which provides the brain with the nutrients that are needed to not only function, but to heal. Occupational therapy has been shown to be an effective way to regain motor coordination following a TBI for the same reason, and speech therapy has been found to help brain injury patients regain lost speech.

While patients should engage in therapy with a professional, either at a facility or in the home, appointments only once or twice weekly likely won’t provide the support that is needed. The brain needs to engage in thousands of repetitive behaviors in order to produce permanent changes, and this will not be possible to achieve if therapies are only practices a couple of times a week, at most. Therefore, to improve the chances of recovery, as well as the rate of recover, TBI patients should engage in therapy exercises that they have learned from a professional at home on a daily basis.

Engage in Repetition

One of the most effective ways to activate neuroplasticity is by engaging in repetitive actions, also referred to as “massed practice”. The more that a TBI patient practices an exercise or a skill, the more his or her brain will realize the importance of the exercise; thus, the brain will create and strengthen new neural pathways for that skill. To illustrate, for a patient who has lost movement in his or her leg following a TBI, practicing highly repetitive leg exercises on a constant basis will help to stimulate the brain and boost the brain’s ability to perform that function.

Holistic Approach

Brain injury therapy that is holistic in nature is another way to increase the chances of making a full recovery. By holistic approach, this means treating all aspects of the brain injury. For instance, in addition to physical, occupational, and speech therapy, patients should also include psychological care and cognitive training exercises, as such exercises can help to enhance memory skills. Additionally, cognitive training exercises can help patients better cope with the emotional impacts that are associated with a brain injury.

In addition to engaging in cognitive exercises, TBI patients should also adhere to a specially formulated diet that is comprised of foods that are known to improve brain function. There are numerous foods that feed the brain with essential nutrients that boost brain function. A therapist or nutritionist can help patients create a customized diet that will support the health of the brain. By adhering to this diet, in combination with engaging in therapies and cognitive training exercises, TBI patients can improve their rate of recovery and their chances of making a complete recovery.

Steer Clear of Maladaptive Plasticity

Though neuroplasticity is known to improve recovery outcomes for TBI patients, there is a downside that is known as “maladaptive plasticity”.

Maladaptive plasticity can happen when a patient incorrectly engages in an action on a consistent basis. For instance, if a patient usually uses her left arm to comb her hair and she uses her right arm to comb her hair instead, as a TBI impacted her ability to control her left arm, continuously using the right arm will cause her brain to eventually “forget” how to use her left one. This can lead to a condition that is referred to as “learned non-use”, and it can cause a permanent loss of function. For this reason, therapists suggest incorporating restorative techniques that teach patients how to regain their lost function rather than just adapt into their recovery program.

Prevent Regression

When a patient fails to regularly exercise the parts of his or her body that have been affected by a TBI, they are unable to activate neuroplasticity, and therefore, their brains will not build new neural pathways. Additionally, they run the risk of completely losing any new functions they run the risk of losing any gains that may have been made. This is known as “regression”. To avoid this scenario, patients should engage in repetitive rehabilitative exercises on a consistent basis, as doing so will help them regain and improve function.

Get Plenty of Sleep

Research studies have proven that sleep is vital for the restoration of bodily and brain functions. This is important under normal circumstances, but even more so following a brain injury. Sleep has been shown to improve numerous cognitive functions, such as memory and learning, which TBI patients may struggle with; however, patients can have difficulty sleeping. By creating health habits and making positive changes to your lifestyle that are known to promote sleep, such as not using technological devices at least two hours before sleeping, setting a regular bedtime, avoiding caffeinated beverages, as well as exercising regularly, can be helpful. Drinking herbal teas and acupuncture can also help to improve sleep.

How Long Does it Take to Recover from a Brain Injury?

The amount of time it will take for a patient to recover from a brain injury varies and depends on several factors. These factors include the type of brain injury that was sustained, the severity of the damage, and how diligent the patient works on his or her recovery. That said, the following is a basic guideline regarding the amount of time it takes, on average, for brain injury patients to recover.

Mild TBI or Concussion

According to statistics, patients who have been diagnosed with a mild TBI or a concussion tend to recover the fastest. It can take about one or two weeks to recover from this type of brain injury. For some patients, it can take longer; for example, patients who have a history of previous concussion may take longer to recover from their injuries. This is because the damages that a concussion causes can be compounded over time, meaning that subsequent concussions tend to be more harmful than the initial concussion.

Moderate or Severe TBI

For patients who have been diagnosed with a moderate or severe traumatic brain injury, it usually takes longer to recover the majority of their cognitive function. Patients may require neurosurgery, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and other forms of treatment. If these patients are consistent with their treatments, recovery can take a year or longer.

There are several factors that can increase recovery time in patients who have been diagnosed with a moderate or severe TBI. These factors can include pre-existing mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression, living environment, personal relationships, age, and health status prior to sustaining the injury. For instance, older adults who are overweight and are afflicted with several medical conditions will likely take longer to recover from a moderate or severe TBI than a teenager who is of average weight for his or her age and height, who does not have any pre-existing medical conditions, and who is in general good health prior to the injury.

Does a Brain Injury Shorten Life Expectancy?

A brain injury can impact all aspects of a patient’s life. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with a brain injury, you may be wondering whether or not the condition will result in a shortened life expectancy. Unfortunately, there are cases when yes, a TBI can shorten a person’s life expectancy; however, the good news is that this isn’t always the case.

Mild TBI or Concussion

A mild TBI or concussion is generally considered non-life threatening. Patients typically do make a full recovery, particularly if they were in general good health prior to the injury, and if they are diligent with their recovery protocol. There are instances, however, when a patient who has been diagnosed with a mild TBI or a concussion can experience a shortened life expectancy; for instance, patients who have had a previous diagnosis of the same condition are more at risk of a shortened lifespan.

Moderate or Severe TBI

Patients who have been diagnosed with a moderate or severe TBI are more likely to experience a shortened life expectancy. Accordion to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, moderate and severe TBI can be life-threatening. Additionally, patients who do survive a moderate or severe TBI diagnosis have, on average, a life expectancy that is, on average, nine years shorter than their counterparts who have not sustained a brain injury.

Thankfully, there are ways that patients can reduce the risk of a shortened life expectancy following a brain injury. Chronic disease management with routine screenings, and prompt diagnosis and treatment of brain injury-related conditions are all factors that can help to minimize the impact that TBI can have on life expectancy. Similarly, rapid diagnosis and treatment for mental health issues that are associated with brain injuries, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic brain injury (PTSD) can help to reduce the impact that TBI has on brain injuries and life expectancy.