Mild traumatic brain injuries usually require no treatment other than rest and over-the-counter pain relievers to treat a headache. However, a person with a mild traumatic brain injury usually needs to be monitored closely at home for any persistent, worsening or new symptoms. He or she also may have follow-up doctor appointments.
The doctor will indicate when a return to work, school or recreational activities is appropriate. It's best to avoid physical or thinking (cognitive) activities until symptoms have stopped. Most people return to normal routines gradually.
Immediate emergency care
Emergency care for moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries focuses on making sure the person has an adequate oxygen and blood supply, maintaining blood pressure, and preventing any further injury to the head or neck. People with severe injuries may also have other injuries that need to be addressed.
Additional treatments in the emergency room or intensive care unit of a hospital will focus on minimizing secondary damage due to inflammation, bleeding or reduced oxygen supply to the brain.
Medications to limit secondary damage to the brain immediately after an injury may include:
- Diuretics. These drugs reduce the amount of fluid in tissues and increase urine output. Diuretics, given intravenously to people with traumatic brain injury, help reduce pressure inside the brain.
- Anti-seizure drugs. People who've had a moderate to severe traumatic brain injury are at risk of having seizures during the first week after their injury. An anti-seizure drug may be given during the first week to avoid any additional brain damage that might be caused by a seizure. Additional anti-seizure treatments are used only if seizures occur.
- Coma-inducing drugs. Doctors sometimes use drugs to put people into temporary comas because a comatose brain needs less oxygen to function. This is especially helpful if blood vessels, compressed by increased pressure in the brain, are unable to deliver the usual amount of nutrients and oxygen to brain cells.
Emergency surgery may be needed to minimize additional damage to brain tissues. Surgery may be used to address the following problems:
- Removing clotted blood (hematomas). Bleeding outside or within the brain can result in a collection of clotted blood (hematoma) that puts pressure on the brain and damages brain tissue.
- Repairing skull fractures. Surgery may be needed to repair severe skull fractures or to remove pieces of skull in the brain.
- Opening a window in the skull. Surgery may be used to relieve pressure inside the skull by draining accumulated cerebral spinal fluid or creating a window in the skull that provides more room for swollen tissues.
Most people who have had a significant brain injury will require rehabilitation. They may need to relearn basic skills, such as walking or talking. The goal is to improve their abilities to perform daily activities.
Therapy usually begins in the hospital and continues at an inpatient rehabilitation unit, a residential treatment facility or through outpatient services. The type and duration of rehabilitation varies by individual, depending on the severity of the brain injury and what part of the brain was injured. Rehabilitation specialists may include:
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- Physiatrist, a doctor trained in physical medicine and rehabilitation, who oversees the entire rehabilitation process
- Occupational therapist who helps the person learn, relearn or improve skills to perform everyday activities
- Physical therapist, who helps with mobility and relearning movement patterns, balance and walking
- Speech and language pathologist, who helps the person improve communication skills and use assistive communication devices if necessary
- Neuropsychologist or psychiatrist, who helps the person manage behaviors or learn coping strategies, provides talk therapy as needed for emotional and psychological well-being, and prescribes medication as needed
- Social worker or case manager, who facilitates access to service agencies, assists with care decisions and planning, and facilitates communication among various professionals, care providers and family members
- Rehabilitation nurse, who provides ongoing rehabilitation care and services and who helps with discharge planning from the hospital or rehabilitation facility
- Traumatic brain injury nurse specialist, who helps coordinate care and educates the family about the injury and recovery process
- Recreational therapist, who assists with leisure activities
- Vocational counselor, who assesses the ability to return to work and appropriate vocational opportunities, and provides resources for addressing common challenges in the workplace
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