Traumatic Brain Injury and Addiction

Traumatic brain injuries can happen to anyone. They can be caused by blunt force trauma, illness, or even birth. Yet there is a common thread connecting nearly half of all traumatic brain injuries that occur in the United States people: drug and alcohol abuse.

Adolescents and adults who experience a traumatic brain injury are heavier drinkers than their uninjured counterparts and are more likely to experience a substance abuse disorder. Understanding why this correlation exists first requires you to understand the nature of brain injuries themselves.

What is a Traumatic Brain Injury?

Traumatic brain injuries are usually defined by a violent jolt or blow to the head, or penetration by a projectile or sharp object causing significant damage to the brain. These types of brain injuries carry a high risk of mortality, but can be survived with proper medical intervention. This may include rehabilitation to regain vital motor skills necessary for everyday. Brain injuries can affect one’s equilibrium, ability to walk, or the fine motor skills necessary for using one’s hands to write or use cutlery. Some people who experience traumatic brain injuries make a full recovery, while others may cause lasting limitations.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Addiction

The first year following traumatic brain trauma is typically focused on getting life back on track. Physical and mental health therapy help one to move forward and learn to cope with a new reality. However, there’s a hidden risk of developing or worsening alcohol use disorders two to five years post-injury without addiction intervention. 10 to 20 percent of people who experience a brain injury develop a substance use disorder for the first time following the injury.

When it comes to incidents causing a brain injury, 20 percent of teens and adults hospitalized for traumatic brain injury were intoxicated. 30 percent of brain injuries requiring rehabilitation also involve intoxication. In patients who require inpatient rehab for a brain injury, more than 60 percent have a prior history of substance abuse. This includes:

  • 43 percent alcohol use
  • 29 percent drug use
  • 48 percent either or both

In patients for whom treatment has a sub-optimal outcome:

  • 54 percent of cases involve alcohol use
  • 34 percent involve drug use
  • 58 percent involve either or both

Post-Injury Effects of Substance Abuse

Traumatic brain injuries also impact the day drugs and alcohol affect our minds and bodies. Substance abuse post-injury can reduce one’s recovery from the brain injury. It also worsens issues with balance, walking, speech, or cognition caused by the brain injury. Drug and alcohol use has a greater effect on the mind, potentially further exasperating damages. People may experience spontaneous seizures after experiencing a traumatic brain injury that affects the central nervous system. Survivors of a traumatic brain injury are also more likely to experience another brain injury in their lifetime.


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