Traumatic brain injury

traumatic brain injury

A traumatic brain injury (TBI), also known as an intracranial injury, is an injury to the brain caused by an external force. TBI can be classified based on severity (ranging from mild traumatic brain injury [mTBI/concussion] to severe traumatic brain injury), mechanism (closed or penetrating head injury), or other features (e.g., occurring in a specific location or over a widespread area). Head injury is a broader category that may involve damage to other structures such as the scalp and skull. TBI can result in physical, cognitive, social, emotional and behavioral symptoms, and outcomes can range from complete recovery to permanent disability or death.

Causes include falls, vehicle collisions and violence. Brain trauma occurs as a consequence of a sudden acceleration or deceleration within the cranium or by a complex combination of both movement and sudden impact. In addition to the damage caused at the moment of injury, a variety of events following the injury may result in further injury. These processes include alterations in cerebral blood flow and pressure within the skull. Some of the imaging techniques used for diagnosis include computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs).

Prevention measures include use of seat belts and helmets, not drinking and driving, fall prevention efforts in older adults and safety measures for children. Depending on the injury, treatment required may be minimal or may include interventions such as medications, emergency surgery or surgery years later. Physical therapy, speech therapy, recreation therapy, occupational therapy and vision therapy may be employed for rehabilitation. Counseling, supported employment and community support services may also be useful.

TBI is a major cause of death and disability worldwide, especially in children and young adults. Males sustain traumatic brain injuries around twice as often as females. The 20th century saw developments in diagnosis and treatment that decreased death rates and improved outcomes.

Traumatic brain injury is defined as damage to the brain resulting from external mechanical force, such as rapid acceleration or deceleration, impact, blast waves, or penetration by a projectile. Brain function is temporarily or permanently impaired and structural damage may or may not be detectable with current technology.

TBI is one of two subsets of acquired brain injury (brain damage that occur after birth); the other subset is non-traumatic brain injury, which does not involve external mechanical force (examples include stroke and infection). All traumatic brain injuries are head injuries, but the latter term may also refer to injury to other parts of the head. However, the terms head injury and brain injury are often used interchangeably. Similarly, brain injuries fall under the classification of central nervous system injuries and neurotrauma. In neuropsychology research literature, in general the term “traumatic brain injury” is used to refer to non-penetrating traumatic brain injuries.

TBI is usually classified based on severity, anatomical features of the injury, and the mechanism (the causative forces). Mechanism-related classification divides TBI into closed and penetrating head injury. A closed (also called nonpenetrating, or blunt) injury occurs when the brain is not exposed. A penetrating, or open, head injury occurs when an object pierces the skull and breaches the dura mater, the outermost membrane surrounding the brain.


Brain injuries can be classified into mild, moderate, and severe categories. The Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS), the most commonly used system for classifying TBI severity, grades a person’s level of consciousness on a scale of 3–15 based on verbal, motor, and eye-opening reactions to stimuli. In general, it is agreed that a TBI with a GCS of 13 or above is mild, 9–12 is moderate, and 8 or below is severe. Similar systems exist for young children. However, the GCS grading system has limited ability to predict outcomes. Because of this, other classification systems such as the one shown in the table are also used to help determine severity. A current model developed by the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs uses all three criteria of GCS after resuscitation, duration of post-traumatic amnesia (PTA), and loss of consciousness (LOC). It also has been proposed to use changes that are visible on neuroimaging, such as swelling, focal lesions, or diffuse injury as method of classification. Grading scales also exist to classify the severity of mild TBI, commonly called concussion; these use duration of LOC, PTA, and other concussion symptoms.