Even a walk across the street can bring on a life-changing TBI when drunk drivers are involved

Your brain is well protected within your skull. Fluid surrounds your brain that cushions it from ever making contact with the hard inside of the skull. However, a jarring blow to your body or head can cause your brain to move around, which increases the chance of a traumatic contact between skull and brain. And a car accident, like this devastating story of a mother hit and nearly killed by a hit-and-run driver in downtown Bellingham, can make for a terrible brain injury for accident victims.

Because it is Brain Injury Awareness Month, I'm writing a series of posts about this increasingly common and studied injury. The more the medical community learns about TBI, the better public awareness of risks, symptoms, and treatment options.

Who is at risk?

Men are twice as likely as women to suffer a TBI. The reasons for this are unclear though behavior and risk-taking probably play a role. Younger men, in particular, engage in riskier behavior than women, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they suffer more brain injuries.

Age is also a risk factor, with the following age groups having an above-average risk:

  • Children aged five or younger
  • People aged 15 to 24
  • Senior citizens aged 75 or older

The reasons these populations suffer a greater likelihood of brain injuries vary. For example, children under five have less coordination and softer skulls, so they are more likely to fall. Young adults between 15 and 24 engage in much riskier behavior than other populations. Also, the elderly are at increased risk of falling because of broken bones or disorientation, which increases the likelihood that they will slam their head against a hard object and suffer a brain injury.

Alcohol Use Increases Risk

Alcohol use has been associated with about 50% of all brain injuries. Alcohol might be used by either the victim or the person who causes the injury. Alcohol use might also be one reason that young adults are at an increased risk of brain injuries.

Certainly, alcohol use increases the risk of an automobile or motorcycle accident since alcohol slows down reflexes and thought processes. In 2015, 10,265 people died in a crash with a driver impaired by alcohol. Furthermore, over 25% of motorcyclists killed in a crash had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or higher.

Playing Certain Sports Increases Risk

Football has been in the news lately because of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative disease with dementia-like symptoms. Over a dozen former NFL players have been diagnosed with the disease after their deaths. Even if a player never makes it to the professional leagues, they can still suffer more than 8,000 hits to the head during four years of high school football.

However, any contact sport can increase the risk of a brain injury. For example, contact occurs frequently in soccer, where participants can suffer a blow from a rough tackle, from colliding with another player, or from even heading the ball. Non-contact sports like tennis and golf do not carry elevated risk, but other sports like basketball and ice hockey do.

How to Protect Yourself

Risks factors are things associated with an increased likelihood of a brain injury. They do not guarantee that you will suffer a brain injury. Indeed, you can reduce your chances of suffering a dangerous brain injury by taking some common-sense precautions:

  • Don’t drink and drive. Instead, choose a designated driver if you go out drinking, or take a cab home.
  • Wear a seatbelt inside a car and a helmet when riding a motorcycle or bicycle.
  • If you or a child plays sports, insist that the refs enforce the rules against rough play and encourage your child to sit out of a game if they need time to recover from a knock to the head.
  • Encourage your children to participate in no-contact sports or increase the age when children can participate in contact sports.
  • Install clasp bars for the elderly which they can grab for extra stability when getting into a bathtub or when moving around their homes.
  • Because young adults are at a heightened risk for brain injuries, parents should talk with their children about the dangers of alcohol and drug use. Parents should also monitor their children’s behavior and not excuse risk-taking activity as simply something that “young people do.”

Seek Immediate Medical Treatment

If you suffer a hard knock to your body or head, you should seek immediate medical treatment. Prompt medical attention can make the difference between a speedy recovery and lingering problems.

Learn more about common symptoms of TBI and concussions.

Generally, a concussion should clear up in 7-10 days. Pay attention if symptoms only seem to worsen, which might be a sign of a serious brain injury requiring immediate hospitalization.

If you are diagnosed with a concussion, you should avoid strenuous exercise and any risky behavior that might cause a second concussion. Doctors don’t know exactly why, but it is much harder to recover from a second concussion than it is to recover from a first. Stay in bed, if possible, and treat your pain with over-the-counter medications.

Severe brain injuries might require surgery and rehabilitation, particularly if the injury impacted your ability to speak or walk. Physical or speech therapy can help you regain functioning, and mental health counseling will help you recover from the emotional toll caused by a severe brain injury.

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