Traumatic Brain Injury: What is it and What Survivors Want You to Know
March happens to be Brain Injury Awareness Month. As this is a topic near and dear to my heart 💚 I will be dedicating this month’s blog posts to brain health!
I’d like to start off by sharing something personal.
In 2012, the love of my life was struck by a car while cycling and suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), among many other injures. Needless to say, this event changed the course of our lives, including being the catalyst that launched me into Natural Nutrition.
Initially, we thought Joe’s injuries were temporary and that he’d be back in the saddle again in no time. Doctors never gave us reason to think differently. But as time went on, we came to discover just how serious and life-changing his brain injury actually was - and how devastating a TBI can be for anyone. You can read more about our story here.
Though there can be many causes of brain injury, this blog’s focus will be on TBIs.
What Exactly is a Traumatic Brain Injury?
A traumatic brain injury, or TBI, can result from many reasons. Generally, it is due to a blow or jolt to the head strong enough to disrupt the normal function of the brain. In most cases, it occurs when the head suddenly slows down or speeds up. For Joe, it occurred after he was launched through the air and landed on the left side of his head.
Regardless of the cause, the resulting effects and symptoms are often the same. These symptoms depend largely on the severity of the TBI and which part of the brain was affected. Common symptoms include:
• Sensitivity to noise, smells, sounds, and crowds
• Dizziness and/or vertigo
• Loss of initiative
• Fatigue - physical and mental
• Memory problems
• Trouble thinking
• Personality changes
• Nausea or vomiting
• Agitation, irritability
• Easily overwhelmed by emotions/mood changes
• Inability to do two things at once
• Change in sleep patterns/need for increased sleep
• Difficulty waking in the morning
• Problems with coordination
• Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
As you can imagine, if we had to contend with any one of these symptoms on a daily basis, it would undoubtably disrupt our life.
For a brain injury survivor, it can be overwhelming, unbearable, and unrelenting.
“Brain fog” and “mental fatigue” are terms my husband uses a lot. Yet for those of us who have never experienced brain fog, it can be hard to understand. According to him, it’s like being on a roller coaster under water, yet travelling just as fast as if you weren’t under water. It is suffocating, disorientating, and terrifying all at the same time. You feel as though you are outside of your body and don’t know what’s coming next.
Some of you may be able to relate.
If you have experienced a brain injury and still struggle, please know that others understand what you are going through, and that you are not alone. And be sure to stay tuned this month, as I will be sharing some food and lifestyle suggestions that just may help.
For those of you who may be caregivers, friends, neighbours, relatives, or co-workers of a brain injury survivor, the following information is intended for you.
Please be patient with your loved one and treat him or her with grace, as their daily struggle is invisible. They may “look fine” on the outside, but their symptoms and struggles are real.
Some times, they may need a little extra support, understanding, and space.
Some times they may need you to repeat what you just said.
Some times, they may need you to talk a little slower, or quiet your voice.
Some times, they may be having a bad day and need to reschedule a get-together or appointment. Please understand they are not trying to blow you off, they have simply exceeded their limitations for the day.
Some times, they may need to leave a public place because it is too stimulating, too loud, too busy, or too bright.
Some times, they may need to be left alone. To rest. To recharge their damaged batteries. To be in a dark, quiet space.
All too often, loved ones, care givers, or friends of a brain injury survivor give up. They fail to appreciate what has happened to their loved one. They fail to accept how that person has changed and how their needs and abilities may have changed. They fail to understand. On a personal note, we know of many marriages (too many marriages) that have dissolved due to the aftermath of one partner suffering a brain injury.
So, in the name of Brain Injury Awareness Month, I implore you - if you are a loved one of a TBI survivor, I would like you to keep a few things in mind the next time you feel overwhelmed by any extra time, care, effort, and attention that is required of you.
What a Brain Injury Survivor Wants You to Know
1. Your loved one suffers constant fatigue.
Everything they do, physical or mental, requires energy and takes a toll on their brain. The more they use it, the more it needs to rest. Everything they do requires more energy than they can muster - even reading a book and watching TV causes neuro-fatigue.
Moreover, there’s no telling when they are going to run out of cognitive or physical energy. It may happen while doing a task that seemed simple but required more work than originally intended. Sadly, for many people with a TBI, they are not always aware of this until after they’ve done too much. By then, it’s too late.
2. Your loved one lives in fear.
Many TBI survivors live in a constant state of fear. Fear of hurting themselves again. Fear of not knowing what the future holds for them. Fear of being overstimulated. Fear of forgetting something. Fear that everything they once knew is gone. Fear that they are not the same person they used to be.
These are all legitimate fears that many TBI survivors live with. For many, it manifests into anxiety or panic attacks, which can also be extremely frightening.
3. Your loved one is in constant pain.
Many TBI survivors sustained multiple injuries in their accidents. Once the broken bones are healed, and the bruises and scars have faded, they still deal with soft tissue damage and chronic pain. For some, it is nerve pain or neck pain. Others have constant migraines. For most, a change in weather, any extra stress, the wrong food choices, or lack of sleep can wreak havoc on their bodies, exasperating symptoms that can last for days.
4. Their brian no longer works the same.
The neurochemistry of their brain has been altered by the brain injury and they have cognitive deficiencies that don’t make sense, even to them. Some of them struggle to find the right word, while others can’t remember what they ate for breakfast. This is not for lack of trying or paying attention. In fact, they have to try even harder to pay attention to details because because of their shortcomings.
5. They feel alone.
Even though you, or others, may physically be present, the brain injury survivor still feels alone. They think no one else understands or knows what they are dealing with or what they are going through. This may partly be due to the fact that everything they once knew is gone, and partly because with all the issues they have to deal with daily, TBI survivors sometimes have a hard time leaving the house. When they do, they never know what they are going to encounter or what triggers they may have to face.
6. They are not the same person.
Though their body may appear the same, their brain has changed. Their abilities and limitations may have changed. They are not the same individual they were prior to their injury, and cannot be compared to or measure themselves against that person from the past. Tasks that may have taken them 10 minutes before, may now take an hour or two. That’s okay. Give them the time they need, and honour their ability to complete the task.
7. And most importantly, none of this is their fault.
They did not ask for any of this.
They did nothing to deserve the pain, the isolation, the anxiety, the fear. They did not ask for the multiple doctors visits, the physiotherapy, the counselling, the added costs, the lost wages, the daily struggles. They may even have had to learn how to perform simple everyday tasks again. Yet they do it. It hurts. It’s hard. It takes every ounce of energy and effort they have. The least we can do is be there to support them through their journey.
Please keep these points in mind when you next encounter someone with an “invisible” brain injury - and with 2.8 million new cases in the US each year, you likely will sooner than later. I’m not telling you this to invoke pity. My goal is to educate and help you understand the real struggles of this invisible illness.
Chances are you know someone with a brain injury, or will encounter one on your next trip to the store. So, the next time the person in front of you at the grocery store is having a hard time counting out their money, or they are walking a little too slowly in front of you, or they can’t remember what they were saying in mid-sentence, or they stare blankly at the shelves, having abandoned their cart in the middle of the aisle, please have some grace. They can’t help it.
While you may not be able to fully understand what it’s like to live with a TBI, you can show compassion and empathy. If you, like me, are a caregiver to someone who’s suffered a TBI, be patient. Be understanding. And most of all, just be there.
The Outlook for TBI Survivors
Unfortunately, no one can say with certainty how long one may suffer with symptoms from a TBI. The symptoms can last for weeks, to months, to years.
If you have suffered from a traumatic brain injury yourself, you already know it can cause functional changes that affect thinking, language, learning, emotions, behaviour, and/or sensations. What you may not know is that having acquired a TBI can also increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and other brain disorders that become more prevalent with age.
If Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or dementia run in your family, be sure to subscribe to my newelstter and come back later this month to find out what steps you can start taking now to reduce your risk or possibly even prevent a diagnosis of these diseases in the future.
Also, in honour of Brain Injury Awareness month, throughout March, I will discuss which foods may exasperate the symptoms of a brain injury, which foods and supplements may benefit cognitive function, what lifestyle changes my help deal with symptoms, how strongly the health of our brain is linked to that our gut, and other tips that may help improve the quality of life for a brain injury survivor.
In the meantime, if you are a TBI survivor or caregiver, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Please comment below!