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What are the effects of a traumatic brain injury?

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can occur when something outside the body hits the head with significant force or causes the head to forcefully and rapidly move. There are many causes of TBI, including when the head hits the windshield during a car accident, an impact from a fall, sports or other recreational activities, or trauma from a nearby blast or explosion during military service. Whatever the cause, TBI can affect the ability to think, control emotions, walk, or speak, along with their senses of sight or hearing.

“I was having trouble seeing. Everything was blurry, the headaches were nonstop, I couldn’t get measurements, and I was confused all the time. All of these were symptoms of a brain injury — we just didn’t know it yet.”

TBI can be mild to severe. Mild injuries are associated with brief changes in or loss of consciousness. Severe injuries involve longer periods of unconsciousness and memory loss around the event. Moderate and severe instances of TBI may be easier to diagnose.

TBI can affect many areas of a person's life, including physical functions, thinking abilities, and behaviors. These effects sometimes cause other difficulties such as sleeping problems, depression, and anxiety.

Physical effects may include:

Cognitive effects may include:

Behavioral effects may include:

What are the effects of TBI that could be mistaken for another condition?

Some of the symptoms of traumatic brain injury can look like emotional or behavioral problems, even though they are actually due to TBI. There are no standard TBI symptoms; the condition can affect people in different ways, and sometimes symptoms change during the recovery process. Some people may recognize TBI symptoms immediately, while for others, these symptoms don't show up right away or can be ignored or minimized at first.

If left untreated, the effects of TBI can affect the way you live your life and the relationships you have with others. Ignoring your symptoms and trying to "tough it out" may make symptoms worse.

The timeline for recovery varies from person to person. People with symptoms of mild TBI may recover over time, and signs may disappear within a few weeks or months. Some moderate to severe TBI symptoms last for a longer period of time and may be permanent. However, there are effective treatments and support for helping Veterans manage their symptoms and find a path to recovery.

If you have experienced an injury and have any of the following persistent symptoms, you should seek a thorough assessment for TBI:

“I’d say that the biggest thing that I had to deal with was frustration. I didn’t know why I was forgetful all the time or always in a bad mood. I didn’t know that I had a traumatic brain injury.”

Some people with TBI think about harming themselves. You might believe that others would be better off without you or that there is no other way out of your problems. These thoughts need immediate attention. It’s important that you talk to someone right away if you have thoughts of death or suicide. If you are thinking about death or suicide, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. You can also use the Veterans Crisis Line online chat or send a text message to 838255. These services provide free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

What can I do about the effects of TBI?

Many Veterans receive effective treatment for TBI. During a TBI evaluation, you and your doctor will discuss what caused your injury. You may also talk about how to deal with the physical, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms and effects, such as difficulty concentrating and headaches, and how these things affect your daily life.

Your doctor may recommend counseling to help you learn ways to manage the effects of TBI. A brain injury can affect the way that the brain functions, and medications may be needed or changed to assist in recovery and coping.

What can I do to manage the effects of TBI?

Most doctors who treat head injuries agree that recovery is faster if you understand what is happening, get enough rest, and resume your responsibilities at your own pace.

Don't push yourself too hard. The time you spend at work, with family and friends, and in other activities should be determined by your comfort level. Only gradually increase your activity level over time. Consider whether or not those activities make your symptoms worse.

“My doctor zeroed in on what exactly was affected and gave me the right medications to deal with my TBI. I started speaking more clearly and I became less frustrated and less angry.”

You can take the following steps to help manage your TBI symptoms:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Write things down or use electronic reminders if you have trouble remembering.
  • Establish a regular daily routine.
  • Check with someone you trust when making decisions.
  • Avoid alcohol. It could slow down the healing process and make symptoms worse.
  • Avoid caffeine, cold medications that treat nasal congestion, or other products that contain pseudoephedrine, which may increase the symptoms.
  • Recognize triggers. Keep a record to help identify situations that are more likely to worsen your symptoms.
  • Take up a hobby or a recreational activity.
  • Talk to others to keep you from feeling isolated and to give friends and loved ones a chance to support you.
  • Remember that symptoms are a normal part of the recovery — and that they will get better.

If your TBI symptoms are interfering with your life or are not improving, be sure to talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to suggest other steps other options based on what you are experiencing.

Take the next step: Make the connection.

Every day, Veterans who served in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard connect with proven resources and effective treatments for managing TBI symptoms. It can be difficult to handle the effects of TBI on your own, so talking to your family and friends can be a first step. You can also consider connecting with:

  • Your doctor. Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does. If you feel comfortable enough with your physician, he or she may be able to help you find tools to manage TBI even without direct experience with Veterans.
  • Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center. VA specializes in the care and treatment of TBI in Veterans.
  • A medical specialist, such as an ophthalmologist (a physician who specializes in medical and surgical problems of eyes) or an audiologist (a medical professional who specializes in hearing and balance problems)
  • Your closest VA Polytrauma Care Facility. Polytrauma Care Facilities are specially designed to treat all the different symptoms of TBI in Veterans.
  • A mental health professional, such as a therapist
  • A spiritual or religious adviser

Explore these resources for more information about Veterans experiencing TBI.

Polytrauma/TBI System of Care
The VA Polytrauma System of Care provides comprehensive care and tailored rehabilitation for Veterans and returning Service members with TBI and other injuries to more than one physical region or organ system of the body.

Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center
This website provides Veterans, Service members, and their families with TBI educational materials and information on care coordination and research.

Take an online symptom management assessment to evaluate how you are handling your TBI symptoms and hear from other Veterans and Service members dealing with TBI.

Vet Center
If you are a combat Veteran, you can bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist — many of whom are Veterans themselves — for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA. In addition, any Veteran who was sexually traumatized while serving in the military is eligible to receive counseling regardless of gender or era of service.

Outreach Center for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Support
The Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury has established an Outreach Center to provide resources to Veterans and others. The Center can provide personalized information about symptoms and recommend resources in your area.

VA Medical Center Facility Locator
VA provides world-class health care to eligible Veterans. Most Veterans qualify for cost-free health care services, although some Veterans must pay modest copays for health care or prescriptions. Explore your eligibility for health care using VA's Health Benefits Explorer tool and find out more about the treatment options available to you.