A head injury is any injury that results in trauma to the skull or brain. The terms traumatic brain injury and head injury are often used interchangeably in the medical literature. Because head injuries cover such a broad scope of injuries, there are many causes—including accidents, falls, physical assault, or traffic accidents—that can cause head injuries.
The number of new cases is 1.7 million in the United States each year, with about 3% of these incidents leading to death. Adults have head injuries more frequently than any age group resulting from falls, motor vehicle crashes, colliding or being struck by an object, or assaults. Children, however, may experience head injuries from accidental falls or intentional causes (such as being struck or shaken) leading to hospitalization. Acquired brain injury (ABI) is a term used to differentiate brain injuries occurring after birth from injury, from a genetic disorder, or from a congenital disorder.
Unlike a broken bone where trauma to the body is obvious, head trauma can sometimes be conspicuous or inconspicuous. In the case of an open head injury, the skull is cracked and broken by an object that makes contact with the brain. This leads to bleeding. Other obvious symptoms can be neurological in nature. The person may become sleepy, behave abnormally, lose consciousness, vomit, develop a severe headache, have mismatched pupil sizes, and/or be unable to move certain parts of the body. While these symptoms happen immediately after a head injury occurs, many problems can develop later in life. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is much more likely to develop in a person who has experienced a head injury.
Brain damage, which is the destruction or degeneration of brain cells, is a common occurrence in those who experience a head injury. Neurotoxicity is another cause of brain damage that typically refers to selective, chemically induced neuron/brain damage.
Head injuries include both injuries to the brain and those to other parts of the head, such as the scalp and skull. Head injuries can be closed or open. A closed (non-missile) head injury is where the dura mater remains intact. The skull can be fractured, but not necessarily. A penetrating head injury occurs when an object pierces the skull and breaches the dura mater. Brain injuries may be diffuse, occurring over a wide area, or focal, located in a small, specific area. A head injury may cause skull fracture, which may or may not be associated with injury to the brain. Some patients may have linear or depressed skull fractures. If intracranial hemorrhage occurs, a hematoma within the skull can put pressure on the brain. Types of intracranial hemorrhage include subdural, subarachnoid, extradural, and intraparenchymal hematoma. Craniotomy surgeries are used in these cases to lessen the pressure by draining off the blood.
Brain injury can occur at the site of impact, but can also be at the opposite side of the skull due to a contrecoup effect (the impact to the head can cause the brain to move within the skull, causing the brain to impact the interior of the skull opposite the head-impact). While impact on the brain at the same site of injury to the skull is the coup effect. If the impact causes the head to move, the injury may be worsened, because the brain may ricochet inside the skull causing additional impacts, or the brain may stay relatively still (due to inertia) but be hit by the moving skull (both are contrecoup injuries).
Specific problems after head injury can include:
Lacerations to the scalp and resulting hemorrhage of the skin
Traumatic subdural hematoma, a bleeding below the dura mater which may develop slowly
Traumatic extradural, or epidural hematoma, bleeding between the dura mater and the skull
Traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage
Cerebral contusion, a bruise of the brain
Concussion, a loss of function due to trauma
Dementia pugilistica, or “punch-drunk syndrome”, caused by repetitive head injuries, for example in boxing or other contact sports
A severe injury may lead to a coma or death
Shaken baby syndrome – a form of child abuse