What Is It?
Trauma to the head can cause several types of head injuries. They include:
Head trauma also can cause swelling inside the brain and a potentially deadly increase in pressure inside the skull. Head injury also can seriously damage brain cells (neurons). In some cases, these cells are destroyed immediately by the impact of a head injury. In other cases, the damaged neurons take longer to lose function and die.
Each year, head injuries result in more than 2 million emergency department visits in the United States, with more than 72,000 deaths. An additional 80,000 to 210,000 people with moderate or severe head injuries become disabled or require extended hospital care. Overall, traumatic head injuries are the most common cause of death among Americans aged 45 and younger. In addition, head injuries resulting from falls are a very common cause of hospitalization and death among people older than 75. Men are three to four times more likely than women to sustain head injuries, and alcohol use is involved in about 50% of cases.
In the United States, the most common causes of closed head injuries, as opposed to open injuries, such as gunshot wounds, are motor vehicle accidents, falls and violent assaults. Because of the extreme forces involved in these types of trauma, up to 75% of people with severe head injuries also suffer serious damage to the neck bones or to major organs in other parts of the body. These additional injuries often increase the risk of blood loss, breathing difficulties, very low blood pressure (hypotension) and other problems that can worsen the damage caused by the brain injury alone.
Head injuries can cause a wide variety of symptoms, depending on the type of injury, its severity and its location. Some doctors classify head injuries into three categories, based on symptoms:
All head injuries should be evaluated promptly by a doctor, so either call for emergency help or have a friend or family member drive you to an emergency department. Once you arrive at the emergency department, the doctor will want to know:
If you are not able to answer these questions, the information can be provided by a family member, friend or the emergency medical personnel who brought you to the hospital.
The doctor will do a physical and neurological examination, including assessments of your pupil size, reflexes, sensation and muscle strength. If the results of these exams are normal, you may not need further tests. However, the doctor may decide to monitor your condition in the hospital.
If you have more severe head injuries, emergency personnel will try to stabilize your condition as much as possible before arrival at the hospital. To do this, they may pass a tube down your throat and windpipe (trachea) to help breathing with a mechanical ventilator, control any bleeding from open wounds, give medication intravenously (injected into a vein) to maintain blood pressure, and immobilize the person's neck in case of a cervical fracture. Once you arrive at the hospital and are stabilized, the doctor will do a brief physical and neurological evaluation. This will be followed by a computed tomography (CT) scan of the head and spinal X-rays, if necessary. In most cases, a CT scan is the best way to detect skull fractures, brain injury or bleeding inside the head.
Even if your head injury is only mild, you may have difficulty concentrating temporarily and may experience occasional headaches, dizziness and fatigue. This collection of symptoms, called postconcussion syndrome, usually improves within three months.
More severe forms of head injury can be fatal. Those that are not fatal sometimes require an extended hospital stay with prolonged rehabilitation. According to one large study, the average length of stay in a rehabilitation facility is 61 days. In some cases, disability is permanent.
To help prevent head injuries, try the following suggestions:
If you have minor head trauma, your doctor may decide to monitor your condition in the emergency department for a short period of time or to admit you to the hospital for a brief period of observation. While you are in the emergency department or in a hospital room, medical personnel will ask you periodically about your symptoms, check your vital signs and confirm that you are awake and can respond. Once your doctor is satisfied that you can be sent home safely, he or she will allow you to leave on the condition that a responsible adult will stay with you at home for a day or two to help monitor your condition. This person will be given specific instructions about possible danger signs to watch for.
If you are troubled by headaches after your head injury, your doctor may suggest that you try acetaminophen (Tylenol) first. If this does not work, your doctor probably will prescribe a stronger pain reliever. Avoid taking aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Naprosyn) or indomethacin (Indocin) during your recovery period since these drugs can increase the risk of bleeding inside the head.
In people with more extensive head injuries, treatment depends on the type of injury, its severity and its location. In many cases, treatment takes place in an intensive care unit with mechanical ventilation (breathing assistance) and with medications to control pain, decrease swelling inside the brain, maintain blood pressure and prevent seizures. Surgery may be performed to repair a depressed skull fracture, drain an epidural or subdural hematoma or treat a brain hemorrhage or contusion.
When to Call a Professional
Call for emergency help immediately if you find someone unconscious at an accident scene. Also call for emergency help if someone with a serious head injury experiences any of the following symptoms:
Even if your head injury appears to be less severe, and your symptoms are mild, it may be possible that you have had significant damage to the brain or its surrounding structures. This is especially true if you:
If you have one or more of the risk factors listed above, call a doctor or go to an emergency department immediately if you have a head injury.
The outlook depends on the severity of the injury:
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
American Academy of Neurology (AAN)
1080 Montreal Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55116
Family Caregiver Alliance
180 Montgomery St.
San Francisco, CA 94104
National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC)
4200 Forbes Blvd.
Lanham, MD 20706
Brain Injury Association of America
8201 Greensboro Drive
McLean, VA 22102
Brain Trauma Foundation
523 E. 72nd St.
New York, NY 10021
National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research
400 Maryland Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20202-7100
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th St., SW
Washington, DC 20590
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
4330 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814-4408