What Is a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)?

A traumatic brain injury is an injury to the head that causes the brain to malfunction. Trauma to the brain can occur in many different ways: a car crash, a fall, being shaken as a baby, a playground accident, a sports injury, or an attack of violence.

Damage to the brain does two things. Right away, the person may lose consciousness or feel dazed and confused. The brain damage the person sustained may change the way the brain works and how the person behaves. These changes differ for each person with a TBI, which makes identifying or diagnosing TBI more difficult than some other medical conditions.

What does it mean that each person's TBI will be uniquely different from someone else's? First, for some people, the changes in behavior or functioning may only last for a few days, weeks or months and then disappear. For others, the changes may never go away. Second, for some people, changes in behavior may not appear right after the injury. For them, memory or learning problems may not be noticed until they try to return to work or school after being injured. For others, problems are noticeable soon after injury.

This is also true for children. For some, learning problems or emotional difficulties may not appear for many years. This is because the first-grader with an injured brain may do just fine with simple arithmetic, but as a fifth-grader may struggle when the math requires multiple steps to find the answers.

Another difference is that, for many people but not all, there is no change in the person's appearance. The fact that the person looks the same and may not have behavioral problems right away may lead to the diagnosis of TBI being delayed for years, or even missed totally.

The good news is that most people who have had a blow to the head and then were either unconscious or remained conscious but felt dazed and confused, recover fully after a few days, weeks or months. For those whose problems don't go away, it is important to know what to look for. And, if a TBI is a possible explanation for the problems, it is important to know what to do and how to get help.

The following pages discuss more fully the kinds of symptoms to look for in deciding if TBI is a possible explanation, and why symptoms may not appear right away. Later pages describe the two kinds of help you can seek (getting a diagnosis and finding treatment.)