Each person travels a different journey after a traumatic brain injury (TBI) has occurred. While there are some similarities in the immediate aftermath and the subsequent road to recovery after experiencing a TBI, the reality is, just as no two people are alike, no two brain injuries are the same either.

Every year millions of people acquire a traumatic brain injury (TBI). According to the Centers for Disease Control in 2010 there were 2.5 million TBIs in the United States and, based on past statistics, more than a million of these injuries likely entailed a trip to the emergency room.1 The number undoubtedly grows significantly if global statistics were to be factored in. These numbers are staggering, yet do not include all those TBI injuries which go undetected (or patients who are given an incorrect diagnosis). A head injury can have a severe impact on a person's life.

Model of the brain
Credit: ArmyMedicine on Flickr/Creative Commons-Attribution

Why TBI is a Unique Injury

TBI is a unique injury for many reasons. It is hard to predict with any level of precision what the effects of a brain injury will be (although in recent years, there has been some progress in this area where experts can use certain models to provide a clearer diagnosis).5

Two people can sustain the same exact type of force, yet experience completely different effects. This is largely because symptoms will depend upon the individual brain cells injured, and the simple fact that no two people have the same exact brain. Not only do physical structures of brains differ, personal experiences vary as well.

A TBI occurs due to an acute event, not unlike other injuries,  however, the impact is far different from other types of wounds. Broken bones heal, injury to the brain changes how it functions. Not only does TBI differ from other injuries, but differs within the TBI diagnosis itself. People often misunderstand the nature of TBI and assume because no outward symptoms are visible that the person has completely recovered, but this is far from reality. Often the consequences are long-term.

The Unseen

It is common for people to misunderstand people with TBI. While an outwardly noticeable physical injury may be present in some individuals, the primary injury is located deep within areas of the brain which are unseen to the naked eye. However, despite the fact a TBI is often not outwardly visible, the impact of it is present. And these unseen residual effects post-injury are very real.

Then there is the cognitive aspect of TBI to consider, and both physical and cognitive symptoms will vary from person to person. Thus it is not only the visible to consider with TBI, most of what impacts the individual lies within the unseen injuries.

Road traveled
Credit: U.S. Army/familymwr via Flickr CC by 2.0

With TBI, the road traveled is very different for each person

Physical and Cognitive Effects

When a person acquires a head injury, many aspects of life are impacted. As a direct result of a TBI, the individual may experience mobility problems, speech difficulties, small motor skill issues and, perhaps one of the most difficult to understand or manage, is the cognitive struggles which can emerge. One, or more likely, a combination of any of these issues will emerge as the person recovers.

Additionally, a person who has sustained a TBI may not behave in the same fashion as he or she did pre-injury. It is not uncommon to hear family and friends described their loved one as being "a different person." This does not always occur, but is a possibility, due to the type of injury sustained. It also often depends upon which brain cells were injured, further making a TBI distinctive in each person who has been injured.

With other injuries in the body, the wounds often heal; however, brain cells are different. Not only are they distinct, but since the brain is the driving force over other areas of the body, including both physical and thinking functions, it is hard to predict what will be affected. Unlike other injuries, such as a broken arm or scraped skin, the brain cannot be restored to the way it was before once an injury occurred. Each individual, child or adult, who sustains a TBI will have a different experience and recovery.

Recovery and Rehabilitation

Other factors to consider when taking a look at the reasons why no two TBI injuries are alike are an individual's experience. For instance:

  • Type of head injury sustained
  • Level and quality of medical care and therapy
  • Time frame in which the TBI diagnosis was made
  • Whether or not early intervention occurred
  • How quickly therapy and/or rehabilitation began

The recovery period is another important component to reflect on because this too can impact the overall effect of a sustained head injury. Every person affected by TBI has a different experience, all of which contribute to the uniqueness of TBI.

Living with TBI

Over the course of time, many issues associated with a sustained head injury can lessen, and sometimes even disappear but, in many instances, many of the injuries may cause persistent issues which eventually become a part of daily living. When understanding TBI, it is vital to realize once a person is diagnosed with TBI, this is a lifetime condition. While therapy and other rehabilitative strategies can help minimize residual issues, the brain will not ever function exactly the same as it did before. This is unique in itself.

No two injured people will travel the same journey in their recovery from traumatic brain injury. While recovery is often very possible, unlike previous beliefs before medical knowledge and technology caught up, it is a different path and adjustment for each person. There are many people who, now with the correct diagnosis, have strong recoveries and can return to their lives. Others will have good recoveries, but not be able to return to their former life, but will travel a new path instead. Life after TBI is often referred to as "the new normal".

Person walking on beach at sunrise
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Technology has come a long way, and over time more is learned about TBI, but much is still greatly a mystery. Most states and counties have agencies dedicated to supporting patients, families and friends affected by TBI. My family has been affected by TBI and we've found these resources to be very helpful.