Unsuspected Brain Injuries: What Our Brains Don’t Always Tell Us
For as vital as we all know our brains are to our very well-being, they’re hiding a lesser-known fact that we would all do well to heed: Our brains are good at keeping secrets. They have a lot of ways of letting us know when something is wrong with our bodies, but they’re not always great at letting us know when something is directly wrong with them.
Brain injuries are vast in their range of damage and symptoms, and unfortunately, sometimes that range leans into not showing many symptoms at all. It’s how tragic accidents like the death of beloved actor and comedian Bob Saget occur; what seems like a rough knock to the head that doesn’t warrant a closer look by a doctor can actually result in more severe damage that doesn’t make itself known until it’s too late.
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to live in fear over every little bump to the head (or worse) you might sustain. Not if you have a basic understanding of what happens when a head injury occurs, and you’re smart about following up with the right medical professionals after the fact.
How Brain Injuries Happen
It might go without saying, but brain injuries most often happen when the head suffers some kind of trauma that’s severe enough to affect the organ protected by the skull. This can happen by way of impact with a hard object, penetration by a sharp object, or even as the result of whiplash to the neck or back. Such actions can affect any part of the head, including the top, back, sides, and even the face.
If the impact to the head is great enough, it can cause a concussion that ranges from mild to severe. If the head is penetrated by a foreign object, it can puncture through tissue like muscle and bone to reach directly into the delicate lobes of the brain. And if certain areas of the brain are damaged, it can actually affect different parts of the body. An example of this happening would be something like damage to the occipital lobe in the back of the head leading to problems with eyesight and even blindness in some instances.
Traumatic brain injuries can occur in any number of scenarios, but some of the most
common causes are car accidents, falling or maneuvering and hitting the head on something, and contact sports.
Studies have also shown that as we age, we become even more susceptible to suffering damage to our brains after experiencing head trauma. This is because starting at around age 60, the brain starts to shrink away from the skull, leaving more space between the two. So when the head is impacted, there’s more room for the brain to move and bump dangerously against the inside of the skull. Sometimes, this may not lead to any damage. But other times, it can cause damage that we might not even be aware of.
Why We Don’t Always Know They’ve Happened
Bruising, swelling, and bleeding are common reactions the brain has when it suffers some type of damage. A severe concussion can lead to all three symptoms in some cases. But the problems with these kinds of reactions to damage inside our brains is that we aren’t always aware they’re even going on. And that’s because there are no pain receptors inside the brain itself.
The coverings around the brain and skull, as well as the scalp, all have their own pain receptors. But our actual brain tissue does not, which means that even if it experiences some kind of damage, we may not be able to feel it right away—often not unless the tissue around it has been damaged enough to draw our attention to. So if, say, you were to slip, fall backward, and hit your head on the corner of a table, you might be thankful that it didn’t open up a gash on your head, or that the headache surrounding the sore spot where the impact happened feels minimal. But beneath the surface, it’s possible your brain has suffered bruising or bleeding that you’re entirely unaware of. And when this happens, that damage can sometimes go untreated for much longer than it should.
Eventually, however, most brain injuries will present some kind of symptoms pointing to the fact that something is wrong. The problem is that the longer they go untreated, the more potential they have to do serious and lasting damage.
Symptoms to Pay Attention To
So, how do you catch a brain injury that doesn’t have any immediate symptoms? There really isn’t any surefire answer to that except to be remain hyper-aware and use your best judgment. If you or a loved one hits their head or is hit by something on their head with enough force or weight behind it to make you wonder how they’re not in more pain, that could warrant a trip to see your doctor—just to be sure nothing more is going on.
And if you or this person experience any of the following symptoms within the days following the bump to the head, no matter how mild they may seem, it’s imperative to get checked out right away:
- Headaches or migraines
- Dizziness or equilibrium challenges
- Mood swings
- Slurred or otherwise altered speech
- Difficulty with memory
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Motor dysfunction
- Cognitive and/or sensory changes
There are any number of situations in which head trauma may occur. Some may be as simple as not seeing that low-hanging branch on your walk. Others could be more questionable, like your child taking the rough backswing of a hockey stick to their helmeted face in the middle of a game. And others still are even more glaringly obvious, like being involved in a severe car crash in which your head makes direct impact with debris that causes both external and internal damage. The good news is, most brain injuries are treatable, and doctors can often prevent permanent damage and death with early enough detection and treatment.
What to Do After Suffering a Head Injury
In the case of an obvious head injury, you’ll absolutely want to get to the hospital or doctor’s office as soon as possible. In more unsure scenarios, you’ll at the very least want to closely monitor the situation for any possible symptoms of a brain injury. You may have also heard that you shouldn’t let someone who’s suffered a bump to the head go to sleep within the several hours following the incident. Though most medical professionals consider it generally safe for people who’ve suffered head injuries to go to sleep, you will want to make sure to wake the person every few hours to check that their conditions haven’t worsened. Sleeping itself isn’t the culprit in further brain damage—it’s remaining unaware of the damage for long stretches of time that is.
In situations outside the scope of severe accidents that cause obvious traumatic brain injury (which should clearly warrant a trip to the emergency room), it’s up to you to be diligent about your attention and actions following the head injury. Always start with a thorough assessment of the injured person:
- Did they lose consciousness for any amount of time?
- Is their head bleeding, bruised, or swollen?
- Do they feel any pain around the impact site at all?
- Are they experiencing any sort of headache, no matter how mild or short-term?
- Are they bleeding from any orifices like the nose or ears?
- Do they have any swelling or bruising to any parts of their face, particularly around the eyes or ears?
- Are their pupils dilated, or are they reacting to changes in light as they should?
- Are they having any problems with any other bodily functions, like speech, memory, or movement?
If any of the above symptoms present themselves in any form, get the person checked out at a hospital. Even if they lose consciousness for only a minute and wake up seemingly fine, or don’t seem to have more than a mildly fleeting headache. When it comes to head injuries, it’s always better to play it safe.