News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Traumatic brain injury occurs about once every nine seconds in the U.S. Here’s how and why

The hand of a doctor points to a brain scan image of a recent traumatic brain injury patient showing brain contusion and hemorrhage.
The hand of a doctor points to a brain scan image of a recent traumatic brain injury patient showing brain contusion and hemorrhage.

Recent studies done at the Brain Injury Association of Americashow more than 3.5 million injuries each year involving a violent blow or jolt to the head that can affect how the brain works. KERA’s Sam Baker talked with neurosurgeon and medical director of Texas Health Fort Worth’s neurotrauma program. Dr. Christopher Shank.


Why are there so many traumatic brain injuries each year?

There's a wide spectrum of brain injuries from mild to severe, and they can occur from a lot of different things.

Classically, we would see brain injuries with very bad car accidents, but as the population ages and becomes sicker at baseline and takes more and more medications, including blood-thinning medications, we are seeing more and more traumas related to relatively minor incidents like ground-level falls or falls from very low heights. 

Degrees of traumatic brain injury

It basically breaks down into three levels: mild, moderate, and severe.

We classify that based on how the patient interacts with us when they get to the hospital. Are they opening their eyes? Are they talking? If so, are they talking appropriately?

And then most importantly, how are they moving? Are they moving their arms or their legs? What's their level of consciousness? 

Can you have a mild traumatic brain injury and not know it? 

Absolutely. We see a significant number of either mild traumatic brain injuries or concussions in the emergency room and in the trauma bay, and they may even have a normal head CTand their injury may manifest in a delayed fashion with very mild symptoms like headache, blurry vision, nausea, vomiting, irritability, even impulsivity.

Family members say some patients are not the person they were before such and such happened.

So yes, you can definitely sustain an injury and either not pick up on it yourself or it may present in a delayed fashion.

Does treatment depend upon the severity of it?

It does. The patients are evaluated on arrival both clinically and radiographically with a variety of scans and then based on the severity of the injury. We decide if they can be managed safely without a procedure or operation, or if they do require some type of procedure or operation.

Fortunately, only about 10 to 20 percent of brain injuries and 20 to 30 percent of spinal injuries go on to need some type of invasive operation.

For those that don't, they're monitored very closely in specialized units with specialized nurses, and they get follow-up imaging as needed.

And of course, if they do go on to need an operation, then that specific intervention is tailored to the individual patient and their individual injury. 

Has treatment changed greatly over the years? 

A lot of the tenants are still the same: blood pressure management, and close monitoring in the ICU.

But our abilities to detect and treat brain swelling have improved significantly. Our ability to pick up the more minor or mild injuries has improved significantly. And so, yes, it definitely has changed over time. And, of course, what we can do in the operating room has improved substantially.

What can the average person do to prevent traumatic brain injury?

Everything we do here is reactionary.

Patients can do a lot to help themselves, and they're common-sense things:

  • Put your seatbelt on.
  • If you have to ride a motorcycle or you're riding a bike, wear a helmet, wear protective gear. Hopefully, that prevents you from ever needing to meet me or any of my colleagues. 


CDC: Traumatic Brain Injury & Concussion

Mayo Clinic: Traumatic brain jury

NIH: Traumatic Brain Injury Information Page

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.