Neurotrauma & Acquired Brain Injury


External trauma to the head is capable of damaging the brain, even if there is no external evidence of damage. More serious injuries can cause skull fracture, blood clots between the skull and the brain, or bruising and tearing of the brain tissue itself.

Injuries to the head can be caused by traffic accidents, sports injuries, falls, workplace accidents, assaults, or bullets. Most people have had some type of head injury at least once in their lives, but rarely do they require a hospital visit.

However, each year about two million people suffer from a more serious head injury, and up to 750,000 of them are severe enough to require hospitalization. Brain injury is most likely to occur in males between ages 15 and 24, usually as a result of car and motorcycle accidents. About 70% of all accidental deaths are due to head injuries, as are most of the disabilities that occur after trauma.

A person who has had a head injury and who is experiencing the following symptoms should seek medical care immediately:

  • Serious bleeding from the head or face

  • Loss of consciousness, however brief

  • Confusion and lethargy

  • Lack of pulse or breathing

  • Clear fluid drainage from the nose or ear.

Causes and Symptom

A head injury may cause damage both from the direct physical injury to the brain and from secondary factors, such as lack of oxygen, brain swelling, and disturbance of blood flow. Both closed and penetrating head injuries can cause swirling movements throughout the brain, tearing nerve fibers and causing widespread bleeding or a blood clot in or around the brain. Swelling may raise pressure within the skull (intracranial pressure) and may block the flow of oxygen to the brain.

Head trauma may cause a concussion, in which there is a brief loss of consciousness without visible structural damage to the brain. In addition to loss of consciousness, initial symptoms of brain injury may include:

  • Memory loss and confusion

  • Vomiting

  • Dizziness

  • Partial paralysis or numbness

  • Shock

  • Anxiety.

After a head injury, there may be a period of impaired consciousness followed by a period of confusion and impaired memory with disorientation and a breakdown in the ability to store and retrieve new information. Others experience temporary amnesia following head injury that begins with memory loss over a period of weeks, months, or years before the injury (retrograde amnesia). As the patient recovers, memory slowly returns. Post-traumatic amnesia refers to loss of memory for events during and after the accident.

Epilepsy occurs in 2-5% of those who have had a head injury; it is much more common in people who have had severe or penetrating injuries. Most cases of epilepsy appear right after the accident or within the first year, and become less likely with increased time following the accident.

Intensity varies

At first the symptoms come and go, usually affected by excessive use of the hand. When the hand is rested, there may be no symptoms. As the condition worsens and pressure on the nerve becomes greater, the person may experience numbness all the time.

Closed Head Injury

Closed head injury refers to brain injury without any penetrating injury to the brain. It may be the result of a direct blow to the head; of the moving head being rapidly stopped, such as when a person’s head hits a windshield in a car accident; or by the sudden deceleration of the head without its striking another object. The kind of injury the brain receives in a closed head injury is determined by whether or not the head was unrestrained upon impact and the direction, force, and velocity of the blow. If the head is resting on impact, the maximum damage will be found at the impact site. A moving head will cause a “contrecoup injury” where the brain damage occurs on the side opposite the point of impact, as a result of the brain slamming into that side of the skull. A closed head injury also may occur without the head being struck, such as when a person experiences whiplash. This type of injury occurs because the brain is of a different density than the skull, and can be injured when delicate brain tissues hit against the rough, jagged inner surface of the skull.

Penetrating Head Injury

If the skull is fractured, bone fragments may be driven into the brain. Any object that penetrates the skull may implant foreign material and dirt into the brain, leading to an infection.

Skull Fracture

A skull fracture is a medical emergency that must be treated promptly to prevent possible brain damage. Such an injury may be obvious if blood or bone fragments are visible, but it’s possible for a fracture to have occurred without any apparent damage. A skull fracture should be suspected if there is:

  • Blood or clear fluid leaking from nose or ears

  • Unequal pupil size

  • Bruises or discoloration around the eyes or behind the ears

  • Swelling or depression of the part of the head.

Intracranial Hemorrhage

Bleeding (hemorrhage) inside the skull may accompany a head injury and cause additional damage to the brain. A blood clot (hematoma) may occur if a blood vessel between the skull and the brain ruptures; when the blood leaks out and forms a clot, it can press against brain tissue, causing symptoms from a few hours to a few weeks after the injury. If the clot is located between the bones of the skull and the covering of the brain (dura), it is called an epidural hematoma. If the clot is between the dura and the brain tissue itself, the condition is called a subdural hematoma. In other cases, bleeding may occur deeper inside the brain. This condition is called intracerebral hemorrhage or intracerebral contusion (from the word for bruising).

In any case, if the blood flow is not stopped, it can lead to unconsciousness and death. The symptoms of bleeding within the skull include:

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Headache

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Unequal pupil size

  • Lethargy.

Post Concussion Syndrome

If the head injury is mild, there may be no symptoms other than a slight headache, or there also may be confusion, dizziness, and blurred vision. While the head injury may seem to have been quite mild, in many cases symptoms persist for days or weeks. Up to 60% of patients who sustain a mild brain injury continue to experience a range of symptoms called “postconcussion syndrome,” as long as six months or a year after the injury.

The symptoms of post concussion syndrome can result in a puzzling interplay of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional complaints that can be difficult to diagnose, including:

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Mental confusion

  • Behavior changes

  • Memory loss

  • Cognitive deficits

  • Depression

  • Emotional outbursts.


The extent of damage in a severe head injury can be assessed with computed tomography scan (CT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scans, electroencephalograms (EEG), and routine neurological and neuropsychological evaluations.

Doctors use the Glasgow Coma Scale to evaluate the extent of brain damage based on observing a patient’s ability to open his or her eyes, respond verbally, and respond to stimulation by moving (motor response). Patients can score from 3 to 15 points on this scale. People who score below 8 when they are admitted usually have suffered a severe brain injury and will need rehabilitative therapy as they recover. In general, higher scores on the Glasgow Coma Scale indicate less severe brain injury and a better prognosis for recovery.

Patients with a mild head injury who experience symptoms are advised to seek out the care of a specialist; unless a family physician is thoroughly familiar with medical literature in this newly emerging area, experts warn that there is a good chance that patient complaints after a mild head injury will be downplayed or dismissed. In the case of mild head injury or postconcussion syndrome, CT and MRI scans, electroencephalograms (EEG), and routine neurological evaluations all may be normal because the damage is so subtle. In many cases, these tests can’t detect the microscopic damage that occurs when fibers are stretched in a mild, diffuse injury. In this type of injury, the axons lose some of their covering and become less efficient. This mild injury to the white matter reduces the quality of communication between different parts or the brain. A PET scan, which evaluates cerebral blood flow and brain metabolism, may be of help in diagnosing mild head injury, although this is still largely considered to be an experimental procedure.

Patients with continuing symptoms after a mild head injury should call a local chapter of a head-injury foundation that can refer patients to the best nearby expert.

If a concussion, bleeding inside the skull, or skull fracture is suspected, the patient should be kept quiet in a darkened room, with head and shoulders raised slightly on pillow or blanket.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
A diagnostic technique that provides high quality cross-sectional images of organs within the body without x rays or other radiation.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan
A computerized diagnostic technique that uses radioactive substances to examine structures of the body. When used to assess the brain, it produces a three-dimensional image that reflects the metabolic and chemical activity of the brain.


Injury to the head may damage the scalp, skull or brain.The most important consequence of head trauma is traumatic brain injury.

Head injury may occur either as a closed head injury, such as the head hitting a car’s windshield, or as a penetrating head injury, as when a bullet pierces the skull. Both may cause damage that ranges from mild to profound.

Very severe injury can be fatal because of profound brain damage.