How do brains get damaged? Is yours?

Even a “little” hit to the head can cause problems that can last for years
But that’s not the ONLY way your brain can be damaged

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the TBI/PTSD Brain-based Series

In our attempt to understand ourselves and our environment, we often end up talking about the brain — “that three pound lump of jelly you can hold in the palm of your hand” ~ V.S. Ramachandran

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month
Brain Awareness Week
– March 13-19, 2017

More Common that you realize

Brain Injury can happen to anyone in the blink of an eye, whether it happens as the result of stroke, car accident, playing football, taking a tumble off a bike, or sometimes even when you trip and fall walking down the sidewalk.

After-effects can persist for years in some cases — and you don’t actually have to hit your head to bruise your brain, by the way.

The only brains most of us have ever seen are models, or brains that have been solidified by chemicals, leading us to believe that they are solid structures that are fairly rugged — and that it might take a significant hit to damage a brain.

Nope! The living brain is soft, floating around inside a fluid filled environment keeping it from bumping up against the inside of a hard skull that, in turn, is protecting the fragile brain itself.

The severity of brain damage can vary with the type of brain injury.

  • A mild brain injury is temporary, sometimes barely seeming to cause much of a problem at all, and often limited to headaches, confusion, memory problems and nausea when it does.
  • In a moderate brain injury, symptoms often last longer, can be more pronounced and can result in other challenges and impairments.

In the majority of cases of mild to moderate brain damage your brain recovers completely, as long as you give it time to heal.

Don’t let that encourage you to take brain injury lightly

Your brain can be easily injured bumping up against that bony skull, even when no hit to the head was involved in the original accident — especially the PFC [prefrontal cortex], the executive functioning portion right behind your forehead.

In addition to brain injuries that involve even limited damage to the skull, anything that makes the brain “slosh around” in the fluid in a manner that causes it to come in contact with the skull results in at least minor brain damage.  What frequently follows can be much worse.

Subsequent swelling or bleeding is a big problem with shaken baby syndrome, for example. I also learned from the overnight death of the young brother of a colleague that all children injured in sledding accidents need to be taken to the doctor to be checked out immediately – before you put them to bed.

Closed head injuries frequently result in what is called diffuse brain damage — damage to several areas of the brain — that also can cause a variety of subsequent problems with cognition, speech and language, vision, or difficulties getting other parts of the body to respond.

Anyone who has a head or brain injury needs immediate medical attention. Depending on the extent and location of the damage, brain injury that seems mild can be as dangerous as more overtly serious injuries.

The extent of potential brain damage is determined by neurological examination, usually including X-rays or brain scans, and neuro-psychological assessments that check out reflexes and cognitive abilities. After checking for brain bleeds and swelling, the first goal is to stabilize the patient to make sure that blood pressure is controlled, and that blood carrying oxygen is flowing to the brain to prevent further injury.

With the correct diagnosis and treatment that contains the damage, even more serious brain injuries do not necessarily have to result in long-term disability or impairment, although approximately half of severe injuries require surgery to repair a ruptured blood vessel or to relieve pressure on the brain.

Every brain injury is different – and ALL need time to heal

Found on Pinterest

Regardless of cause, brain injuries can range from mild to severe, with a majority of cases you hear about being concussions.

It can sometimes take many years for brains to heal from certain kinds of damage, but it always takes longer than a day or two for your brain to recover completely from even minor damage – and longer still if you suffer another injury while it’s still healing.

Football players eager to get back on the field aren’t the only ones who fail to understand why and how long they have to take it easy to avoid long-term damage, even when they believe they are ready to hard-charge it again.

You really do have to take it easy afterwards, just as you would if you’d injured an arm or a leg, but even more important.

Brain damage disrupts the brain’s normal functioning, and can affect thinking, understanding, word-retrieval and language skills, and/or memory, sometimes for years afterwards and sometimes not evident until years later.

Other than those who play professional sports, males between 15 and 24 are most vulnerable because they are the population most frequently engaging in risky behaviors. Young children and the aging also have a higher risk, probably because they are most likely to have balance challenges that result in falls.

Symptoms of Brain Injury

There are many, but negative effects cluster in what can be thought of in terms of three functional systems:

(1) intellect, which is the information-handling aspect of behavior;
(2) emotionality, which concerns feelings and motivations;  and
(3) control, which has to do with how behavior is expressed.
Source: Neuropsychological Assessment, 3nd  Ed., 1995,  by Muriel D. Lezak

These commonly include trouble with some or all of the following: 

• attention and concentration 
• short-term memory   • organizing/prioritizing
• impulsiveness   • task switching,
  and occasionally
• poor social skills   and   • mood swings.

EXCELLENT Related Post:
Lost & Found: What Brain Injury Survivors Want You to Know

Causes of Brain Injuries

In this article we won’t be looking at brain damage in the womb as part of a genetic or congenital disorder (fetal alcohol syndrome, for example) or damage to the fetus due to maternal illness or accident.

I also won’t cover in this post what is often referred to as Acquired Brain Injury [ABI] — brain damage due to disease, stroke, medication, alcohol and drug use, or oxygen deprivation. ABIs affect the brain at a cellular level, most often associated with pressure on the brain, or as the result of a neurological illness.

I want to focus on the kind of brain damage most likely to affect most of you who read and follow — and the most commonly reported source of brain damage is trauma.

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Causes of the most common brain injuries

Traumatic Brain Injury [TBI] is frequently the result of a blow to the head, whether or not the skull itself is damaged but, but but . . . injuries resulting from a direct hit to the head is only one type of trauma that can damage your brain.

  • MOST people in even relatively minor car collisions and all who experienced whiplash have injured their brains.
  • Soldiers who have been in the blast range but were not physically injured frequently suffer brain damage as a result.  Some reports say injuries of that sort represent the largest number of injuries to soldiers in recent wars.

Since 2006, according to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], blasts have been the most common cause of injury among American soldiers treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. ~ BrainLineMilitary

Although science isn’t sure yet how damage occurs, one theory is that, in addition to pressure waves possibly slamming a fragile brain floating in a cerebral spinal fluid bath into bony protrusions inside the skull, that the pressure waves themselves disrupt brain functioning.

  • Widespread damage can come from resultant swelling, blood clots, or bleeding in or around the brain.  Any of these frequently disrupt the oxygen supply to the brain and even a relatively short period of oxygen deprivation can cause long-term damage.
  • Even migraines can cause brain damage.
  • About 20 percent of traumatic brain injuries are caused by violence, such as gunshot wounds, domestic violence or child abuse.

Related Posts:
Nick: A Personal Triumph over Brain Damage
Nick’s Story on Sue Vincent’s blog

Take it EASY

Following any possibility of brain damage, especially after an accident in your car (whether or not you think you were physically injured), baby yourself for longer than you believe you must, even if your doctor gives you the all clear.

Unless your doctor is a trauma specialist schooled in neuroscience, I doubt he’ll be as concerned about the impact to your brain as is appropriate, unfortunately.

It’s best not to do anything with even the remote possibility of resulting in further damage for several months: the slightest hit to or sudden jarring of your head.  Avoiding repeat trauma is more important to long-term brain health than most of us realize – even most doctors currently.

Subsequent damage makes it tough for brains to heal and, as a result, pathways change that can cause problems in the future. Cognitive rest is important too. Once you have been checked out, increased time sleeping is your best bet there – so don’t try to push through tiredness following even a mild brain injury.

Related Post: Facts About Traumatic Brain Injury

According to a study back in 1974 by Gronwall & Wrightson (and others subsequently), patients with Post Concussion Syndrome and mild head injury often process information at a slower than average rate and can become easily overwhelmed. Many patients do not notice that they have a problem until some time later.

Often, only once they return to work do they realize that their ability to concentrate has been impaired, when they have problems accomplishing tasks that used to be relatively easy for them — especially those that require sustained attention or attention to a number of details.

Getting back on task after interruptions and screening out the noise of Open Office environments can be extremely frustrating and often difficult.

What can I do to prevent brain injuries?

Most injuries that cause brain damage are preventable. Here are some rules to follow to reduce the risk of brain damage, directly from WebMD:

  • Never shake a child.
  • Install window guards to keep young children from falling out of open windows.
  • Install shock-absorbing material on playgrounds.
  • Wear helmets during sports or cycling.
  • Wear seatbelts in cars, and drive carefully.
  • Avoid falls by using a step-stool when reaching for high items.
  • Install handrails on stairways.
  • Don’t use illegal drugs.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation, and never drink and drive.

How can I overcome or work around the effects of brain damage?

I’ll tackle this topic in more detail in future articles, but I want to remind everyone that brain-based ADD Coaching techniques work with all cognitive struggles – and are very effective if you are struggling with TBI.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

90 Responses to How do brains get damaged? Is yours?

  1. Pingback: Why you might have problems reading longer articles | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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  5. craig lock says:

    Reblogged this on Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI and commented:
    “We share what we know, so that we all may grow.”

    “What we learn in the darkness, we are to share in the light”

    Harnessing the power of the internet for GOOD…a better and brighter world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for another reblog, Craig. I continue to be dismayed by how many people know so little about brain injuries, erroneously believing that TBI challenges can only happen in the wake of serious hits to the head.

      Thanks so much for helping to spread the word.


  6. Pingback: What ARE Executive Functions? | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  7. Thank you for a very informative post Madelyn. I have found head injuries are not always taken seriously. I used to go horse riding and fell off twice, the first time while cantering over a hill in a group led by a riding instructor. I was pretty shaken and somewhat disorientated, yet no one offered to take me to hospital. I think Natasha Richardson’s death after a skiing accident raised more awareness about the dangers of head injuries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your unfortunate experience here. They don’t have these Awareness Months, weeks and days for no reason!

      Sadly, I believe you are correct on both points – that few people insist on a hospital visit after accidents, and the difference (in England, anyway) after Natasha Richardson’s death.

      When my leg was broken after an unusual skiing accident, even the hospital didn’t think to check my brain for potential damage. “Fortunately,” I had no choice but to take it easy for many months following, so I imagine my brain was able to heal quite well. I hope you have had no lasting effects from your fall.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes it’s a pity we have to challenge doctors at times. My head took quite a while to heal. I had migraines for a couple of years but they eventually healed with rest and reflexology. I am much more respectful of my body these days as I am limited in my energy with fibromyalgia. It has taught me many lessons.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Migraines and fibro – has your doctor tested you for gluten antibodies? The Cyrex Labs 10-factor test, not the older one that only tested for one and returns a high percentage of false negatives.

          There is a growing body of evidence that connects those two to gluten sensitivity – with astounding results when gluten is eliminated totally.


          • My doctor has never tested me for this but I am seeing a kinesiologist who suspects gluten intolerance. We are working on it. I am on a waiting list for a review by a rheumatologist. I have been on it 2 tears now after the discovery of a positive dsDNA test. I am very proactive as I was once a natural medicines therapist and teacher over 20 years. So really I just keep working on myself slowly…

            Liked by 1 person

            • Good for you! A 2-year waiting list? Yikes! I hope that indicates his or her level of up-to-date expertise.

              I only suggested eliminating gluten because I am currently researching the latest gluten info for an article (or several) for May – which is, among other things, Celiac Awareness Month – so it was on the top of my mind.

              After Dr. Thom O’Bryan’s first Gluten Summit I eliminated 100% of gluten from my own diet prophylactically, so impressed was I by the interviews with TOP Gluten experts, Marsh among them, discussing the many problems to which gluten has been statistically linked — that cleared up substantially or totally on a Zero Gluten diet.

              I did get a few benefits I could see (reduction of tummy fat that I thought was natural with againg, for example) – but since I had no symptoms (yet!) I can’t point to any miracle cure personally. I had NO intentions of doing so, btw. I was attending for info for my clients and students. But I threw away or gave away all gluten containing products well before the Summit was over, after hearing the mechanism of action, the connections and many explanations of the science from only the first few of a number of experts who have been researching the problem for 20-30 years now.

              It is a complex explanation, but when I saw that you’re energy was impaired by fibro, I’d never forgive myself if I failed to mention it. If you have the time and interest, check out the YouTube link below. The host may seem a bit over the top, but I promise he isn’t over-inflating Dr. Thom’s expertise.
              Dr. Tom O’Bryan- Why going gluten-free and doing an Elimination Diet is so important.

              An older one (pre-Summit) includes snippits and background info with power points underscoring some of the points that you, especially will probably find fascinating. You might even want to start with this one:
              Stop Eating Gluten with Dr Tom O’Bryan (Podcast #232)‬

              The Summit was free when I attended, but I subsequently purchased the MP3s and pdfs for under $99. I believe they are still available for around the same price, btw. The implications are alarming, but O’Bryan is not an alarmist – and his info is evidence- and statistics-based and includes anecdotal evidence from thousands of patients. His brilliance is plain-language explanations of complex science – because he wants to get the word out to the world, not just to doctors.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Many thanks Madelyn. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness. Happy Friday. 😍

              Liked by 1 person

            • You are most welcome. Have a wonderful weekend.

              Liked by 1 person

  8. Bernadette says:

    I sustained a TBI a few years ago when a box flew off the shelf of the store I was shopping in and hit me in the head. Your article is right on point about all the side effects that occur. I am still dealing with some of them.


    • Thanks for seconding the validity of the info, Bernadette. I am so sorry to read that you suffer still from a TBI, and from such an unexpectedly bizarre experience — but glad that you are aware that your struggles are the result of TBI and not something even more daunting. Did the store’s insurance pick up at least some of your medical expenses?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I often think that boxers must eventually suffer some kind of brain injury after all those punches to the head.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. dgkaye says:

    Fantastic post as always Madelyn. So important that some who’ve been in accidents and don’t think they were really hurt, look for signs and take care. Often it’s those who think they’re fine who are not. The brain is such a complex organ to learn. 🙂 xo


    • Thanks, Debbie. It is complex, but it gets easier to keep up after a few years – and there are increasingly more books that are written for non-scientists that put things in context, which helps enormously. When I began – years ago now – most of what there was to read was written in “science-eze.” The science crowd is not exactly known for their writing talent anyway, but journal writing follows a formula that is deadly dull reading. Plus, I think I had to look up every third word at the beginning. 🙂 Now I can pretty much read along and understand the importance of most of the studies.

      But I’ll never forget how it was to begin with, so I try to “translate” brain-based info into articles offering as small a chunk as I can and still keep the sense of the info, hitting the high notes so that the post makes sense to blog readers and they get the import too.

      I had to do something for Brain Awareness Week, of course, and Ritu’s recent accident let me know that this was the part of the story I wanted to share.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. mistermuse says:

    I’m afraid your advice is too late for The Donald, so perhaps the country could better use an article on how to live with it. Not to be unkind to an unkind man, but we can’t hide our heads in the sand and pretend he’s normal, because we’re not ostriches (and they don’t really do that anyway). So here’s that article in one sentence: we’re stuck with accepting him as the ‘new normal.’

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know you are sort-of tongue in cheek with this comment, still I agree that the man clearly has brain-based problems. BUT . . .

      NEVER will I hold him up as any sort of poster boy for “normal” — new or otherwise. I refuse to stop advocating with Congress – it may not be a solution, but at least I can know that I’m not contributing to the problem by allowing my self to be resigned to accepting what is being proposed.

      As I said in one of my Grumpy articles, “I may not be able to stop the beatings, but you’ll never get me to say, ‘Beat me Daddy!'”

      I think even former supporters have raised eyebrows, at least, at most of his actions and comments since his inauguration.

      Thanks for reading and ringing in.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I imagine most people would stop doing all the crazy risk-taking behaviour if it could possible help avoid a ABI. The best way to find out the extent of damage is a Neuropsych test. Not just for crazy people! (She says humorously)I’ve lost count how many I’ve had.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. You have my sympathy – and EMPATHY.

      Unfortunately, Helen, too many people retain that teen-age thinking that it will never happen to them.

      If they could change lives with you for even a day I imagine they’d be v-e-r-y careful from that day forward.


  13. Kae Bucher says:

    Well written!… I have taught special Ed most of my adult life :).. I am not presently writing about aspects of it but would love if you would visit my blog:)

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Good article. Scary stuff!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Only scary if ignored, so awareness is key. Given a decent shot – including good nutrition so they have the building blocks they need – brains recover amazingly well.

      It doesn’t happen overnight, however, and brains struggle to recover when we keep making demands on them meanwhile – thus the take it easy section.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. What a great post….so practical and surprisingly relevant given the information you shared….as you’ve pointed out, brain injuries aren’t nearly as exotic as we lay people might assume….thanks for sharing your expertise 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Interesting, very informative, and very important article, as always, but I can’t help but see myself in that picture of the brain on crutches.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. robjodiefilogomo says:

    I know you’re being serious…and this is a serious subject. It reminds me of that movie Concussion—so enlightening!!
    But when I saw the title, I had to giggle—of course my brain is damaged! (or so many retorts…so little time)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah – it’s a serious topic, but we can still laugh at a double entendre in the title, right? Do you think that politics is crowded with individuals whose parents didn’t take them to the doctor after sledding accidents?

      hmmm . . . That’s as good an alternate fact as some I’ve heard have been floating around on Twitter.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Interesting, useful and frightening, Madelyn.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Frightening like “scared straight” I hope. My objective was to let people know that some of their cognitive problems could be due to brain injuries from their past (normalizing) – and let others know that they can prevent long-term damage by taking care of themselves post injury.

      Even most strokes are preventable these days – and most mild and moderate brain damage can be completely recovered from as long as it is contained and you give your brain time to heal before taxing it – the point of the article. It only has to be frightening if you ignore it.

      Thanks for reading and taking time to ring in.
      xx, mgh

      Liked by 1 person

  19. So, So So well written Madelyn. A very real topic that is trivialized in so many circles. When first discovering this topic it changed how I worked with individuals and the question became part of my interviews. Head trauma has its links to so much. This is an article that all need to read and re-read often. It can happen like you said to all without warning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks – there was a meme I almost used that said “one second to injure your brain … weeks, months, years to recover” but it was too dark, so tough to read.

      Good for you for changing how you worked after learning about post- concussion syndrome etc. Sometimes those of us in the ADD community – living with similar challenges for entire lifetimes — almost wish we could point to a post-birth accident that might garner a bit of empathy and attempts at understanding. After all, nobody says they “don’t believe” in brain damage.

      Sadly, folks in the TBI community — many of whom are recovering from repeated or severe traumas — complain that they are often accused of malingering when effects persist – so there’s not a great deal of general understanding even for their challenges.

      But then, inspiring empathy in today’s world is a daunting task – for anything not personally relevant!!


  20. I am not going to answer that…. Seriously Madelyn, one of my daughters fell over the bannister of our last house one night as she leaned over to speak to her dad. She hit her head (Was probably lucky to survive cos these stairs were big and the drop awful ) and she was not the same girl after for years. Good psot x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry to hear that – and glad she survived. HOW scary for you and her dad! But thanks for sharing confirming information.

      My first goal was to get people to take brain injuries seriously, but I’m also hoping to inspire understanding for folks who are struggling with after-effects (which will maybe even lead to empathy for cognitive struggles overall?)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well Madelyn I wish there had been a post like this for me to read then. I came to suspect that her behaviour had to be down to that but that was a hell of along road we walked in darkness, tell you now. Keep up the excellent work x

        Liked by 1 person

        • I hope she is okay now. So sorry that you struggled without information and help when you really needed it.

          I will be posting about Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity in May (Celiac Awareness Month) and my research has led me to believe that anyone with brain damage – EVER – would do well to avoid gluten totally (wheat, barley, rye – primarily) to get out in front of potential problems as they age. I no longer eat it personally, tho’ I have no current symptoms of gluten sensitivity and have not paid for any testing.

          Dr. Thom O’Bryan – gluten awareness advocate who put together the truly amazing Gluten Summit** who travels the world educating doctors is featured in several plain-English interviews on YouTube you both might find enlightening.
          ** MP3s still available from for less than $100 total – and WELL worth the money, IMHO – about 3 bucks an expert otherwise unavailable except to other medical scientists


  21. GP Cox says:

    I know my brain has been damaged – the extent is unknown, but I can easily tell I do not have the I.Q. I had in school!! Sad but true.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Madelyn, you handled a complex and serious subject in a mindful, interesting way. Well done. To me, a very important take-away was that injury can happen without injury directly to the head. Huge hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • GREAT take-away. Another I’d like you to take is that cognitive struggles can result for months following even minor damage even if you give your brain plenty of time to heal, but ESPECIALLY if you don’t (or can’t – bosses want folks back at their desks way too soon, and those of us who work for ourselves don’t eat if we don’t work). Thanks for reading and ringing in.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. A wonderfully informative article, Madelyn! Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Ritu says:

    Thank you for this Madelyn, I know you have been a wealth of advice for me after my accident. I’m still taking it easy, resting when my body tells me to, but am back at work now.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. A fabulous article, Madelyn. I knew some of this but not all so it certainly filled some gaps in my knowledge. Shared on twitter and Facebook. Have a lovely Sunday.

    Liked by 2 people

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