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Traumatic Brain Injury: Signs, Symptoms and When to Get Help

Head injuries are not to be taken lightly. Millions of people suffer from traumatic brain injuries every year, often dubbed a "silent epidemic."

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This story is part of Mysteries of the Brain, CNET's deep dive into the human brain's infinite complexities.

Traumatic brain injuries, or injuries that impact the function of the brain, are a "major cause of death and disability," according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Globally, about 69 million people suffer a traumatic brain injury every year, according to a 2018 review of data. But for whatever reason, traumatic brain injuries still aren't often top of mind when the general public pictures what a disability looks like. That's why some experts have dubbed it a "silent epidemic."

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A TBI can result from a variety of incidents, from car crashes to a simple fall to the ground, and the symptoms may not always be as dire or obvious as you'd expect. 

In early 2022, Full House star Bob Saget's sudden death from a head injury at 65 years old brought high-profile attention to the underestimated danger of TBIs. Authorities concluded that Saget "accidentally hit the back of his head on something, thought nothing of it and went to sleep," the actor's family said in a statement, per CNN. The incident was also a tragic reminder of the 2009 death of actress Natasha Richardson, who hit her head during a skiing lesson and passed away two days later.

While TBIs can affect anyone, certain people are more at risk than others, including older adults and athletes. Here are the most common signs and symptoms of a traumatic brain injury to look out for in yourself or your loved ones, plus the most frequent causes and who's most at risk.

Signs and symptoms of traumatic brain injury

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There are many different types of traumatic brain injury, depending on the severity of the injury, the part of the brain that's injured, the type of injury and whether other injuries have occurred at the same time or shortly afterward. Depending on all these factors, the symptoms and outcomes of a TBI can vary quite a bit. Moreover, symptoms may take days or weeks to present and may change over time, depending on the type and extent of damage (if there's swelling in the brain, for example). 

The CDC outlines three main types of TBI: mild TBI or concussion, moderate TBI or severe TBI. 

If you've experienced any type of blow to the head that could result in a TBI, you should see a doctor regardless of whether or not you currently have symptoms.

Mild TBI 

A mild traumatic brain injury or concussion is the most common type of TBI, the Cleveland Clinic reports. It's typically the result of a bump or blow to the head, or a "hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move quickly back and forth," per the CDC. 

Common symptoms of a mild TBI, according to the CDC and National Institutes of Health, include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness or trouble balancing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Trouble with memory or concentration
  • Mood changes
  • Changes in sleep pattern
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Blurred vision is one common TBI symptom.

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Moderate or severe TBI

Moderate or severe TBIs are typically caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head, or by a penetrating force like a gunshot. To reiterate, it's vital to obtain immediate treatment after any injury that could lead to a TBI, regardless of symptoms – while symptoms may or may not be evident right away, moderate or severe TBIs can lead to lifelong health impacts, and some severe injuries even lead to death.

Symptoms of a moderate or severe TBI include:

  • Headache that persists or gets worse
  • Loss of coordination and balance
  • Memory difficulties
  • Difficulty with thinking and learning
  • Loss of consciousness lasting a few minutes to hours
  • Difficulty waking from sleep
  • Problems with vision or hearing
  • Slurred speech
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Increased confusion or agitation
  • Personality changes
  • Numbness, weakness or tingling in the arms and legs
  • Ongoing nausea or vomiting
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Severe TBIs may come with memory loss.

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Other types of TBI

Not all brain injuries fall neatly into the three categories above. For example, a TBI can also be the result of a stroke or seizure, or another incident that deprives the brain of oxygen, like near-drowning. Symptoms of other types of TBIs can include those of both mild and severe TBIs, as well as prolonged loss of consciousness, physical brain damage and other significant physical, cognitive, mental and sensory changes.

Post-TBI symptoms 

Regardless of the severity of the initial injury, TBIs can result in longer-term symptoms and complications, including coma, seizures, frequent headaches, vertigo, difficulties with executive functioning and more. The more severe (or frequent) the injury, the higher the risk of these prolonged or permanent changes. For mild TBIs, this may be known as "post-concussion syndrome," or PCS.

Who's most at risk of a traumatic brain injury?

Anyone of any age can get a traumatic brain injury, from infants to seniors. Statistically speaking, though, some populations are at higher risk. Men, for example, get roughly twice as many TBIs as women, according to research.

Other people who are at higher risk of a TBI include:

  • Adults over 65 years old
  • Adolescents from 15 to 19 years old
  • Infants and children under 4 years old
  • Athletes (professional or recreational)
  • Military personnel and veterans
  • Police officers
  • Construction workers
  • Domestic violence survivors
  • Rural residents
  • People in detention facilities
  • People without stable housing
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What to do if you've hit your head

If you've suffered a head injury that may lead to a TBI, you should seek medical attention immediately. Additionally, if you or your loved one has any of the symptoms of a TBI, seek a professional evaluation as soon as possible. TBIs can be easily mistaken for other conditions, like dementia, in older adults who may have fallen while alone.

A healthcare provider will be able to evaluate the brain and check its various functions, from memory to balance. They can also do imaging tests to check for swelling or bleeding, or do a blood test to check for a concussion. Depending on the type and extent of injury, treatment can range from rest, rehabilitation and therapy to surgery. 

What are the main causes of traumatic brain injury?

The CDC reports that falls are a leading cause of TBI-related hospitalizations and deaths in the US, particularly among adults over 65. In fact, nearly half of TBI-related hospitalizations are the result of falls, a CDC report showed in 2015. And a 2020 federal agency report found that fall-related TBI deaths are increasing, potentially due to "longer survival" or the "increasing population of older adults in the United States."

Motor vehicle crashes, assaults and firearm-related injuries are three other leading causes of TBI, per the CDC. Additionally, sports or recreational injuries are a common cause of mild TBI or concussion. Law enforcement and military injuries can also lead to a TBI.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.