What is a TBI and Will I Ever Return to NORMAL?
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can leave you feeling in physical pain, especially if surgery is required to perform additional rehabilitative measures. In addition, the constant head throbbing and migraine like pressure can be tiring as well. But pain eventually goes away, and what is left is the emotional and behavioral components, including confusion, sadness, and feeling alone or separated from yourself and family members. People may wonder what is “wrong” with you especially if you don’t have any physical signs, like you would with a broken bone. But it’s important to understand what TBI is, as well as expectations about recovery.
A TBI is an injury to the head which causes a change in the way the brain operates. It may or may not involve an open wound to the head. Causes of a TBI may be external such as a motorcycle accident, hitting your head while playing sports, as combat related injuries. Other causes come from inside the brain, such as strokes, tumors, and other neurological illnesses. We differentiate these as penetrating and non-penetrating injuries. Despite their actual cause, all TBIs affect our overall well-being and functioning. When injured, structures responsible for how the brain works are damaged. But the good news is that the brain DOES recover through a process called neuroplasticity, as long as you put in the effort just like you would with a broken leg or sprained ankle.
Most recovery after a TBI occurs within the first 6-9 months, with additional recovery up to 2 years. Depending on the initial severity, it is important to manage your expectations by asking members of your treatment team what is realistic recovery for your type of injury. Often, recovery rakes place in stages. This includes progressively relearning old skills while developing newer ones to make up skills that are more difficult to recover. We call these new skills compensatory strategies. These include learning how to take notes to improve memory, using technology to better organize yourself, and keeping a dictionary or thesaurus around to minimize problems with forgetting words and language. Physical compensatory strategies can also help for some people, such as assistive walking devices, hearing aids, and special glasses for vision.
The most important part of recovery is coming to terms with what is NORMAL functioning. First, we must separate ourselves from the idea that NORMAL exists. This is very different for everyone. For example, a marathon runner may break a leg, but with surgery and recovery may go back to running within a year. Other leg injuries such as serious muscle tears in the knee may prevent him/her from ever running again. These runners may decide to start riding bikes or other competitive sports. The same is true for TBI. A TBI affecting language portions of the brain may make it so that speaking or understanding others may temporarily be affected. For others, more serious injuries may require speaking assistive devices and long term speech therapy. For this reason, as I already mentioned, it’s very important that you stay in touch with your treatment team. Always make sure you ask questions and when in doubt, let somebody know. Lastly, take advantage of other resources, including supportive groups and volunteer opportunities to continue to help redevelop your skills and talents, while helping you connect with individuals with similar challenges.