Physical effects of brain injury Physical effects of brain injury cause problems with the physical functioning of the body, such as movement, speech, and vision, among others. Often these are ‘visible’, but not always.

While people can make a good recovery after brain injury, many people have long-term physical effects. Rehabilitation, equipment, lifestyle changes and adaptations can sometimes be used to overcome these physical difficulties.

Living with the physical effects of brain injury can cause many people to feel like they are ‘living life in the slow lane’ and this can be upsetting or difficult to adjust to. Quality of life, relationships, or sense of identity can be affected by physical effects of brain injury. Speak to your GP, rehabilitation team or neurologist about any physical effects of brain injury that you are struggling with, as they may be able to prescribe medication or provide a referral to a specialist who can help.

Explore the sections below to find out more details about the physical effects of brain injury.

What are the physical effects of brain injury?

Click through the list below for information on some of the common physical effects of brain injury.

Mobility and movement problems

After a brain injury, movement may be slow and can be worsened by other issues such as reduced balance, pain, and fatigue. A brain injury survivor with mobility problems may be unable to walk or may be able to partially walk with the support of walking aids. There may be an increased risk of falls, especially among the elderly. Activities of daily living such as washing and dressing may be difficult or even impossible for the survivor to do independently.

Mobility problems may affect a brain injury survivor’s ability to drive or complete physical activities that they enjoyed before their injury such as participation in sport or going shopping independently.

Always speak to your GP, neurologist, or rehabilitation team about mobility issues.

A physiotherapist may be able to suggest exercises to help with mobility problems and to keep the body well, while an occupational therapist may be able to help with accessing equipment to help with activities of daily living. Neuropsychologists or clinical psychologists/ counsellors with experience in brain injury may be able to support with the emotional impact of living with mobility problems after brain injury.

Spasticity

Muscles in the body may go into ‘spasm’ – this is where they contract, which can feel like a squeezing sensation. This may cause limbs to feel stiff and tight, which can limit a survivor’s range of movement and be painful or uncomfortable.

Often one side of the body is more affected by spasticity than the other. It may affect survivors more at certain times of the day such as at night time. Activities of daily living such as washing and dressing may be difficult or even impossible for the survivor to do independently.

Always speak to your GP, neurologist, or rehabilitation team about treatment for spasticity. Medication may be prescribed, while a physiotherapist may be able to suggest stretching exercises, ways to maintain correct postures or treatment to reduce muscle spasms or improve discomfort/ pain.

Weakness or paralysis

Often weakness or paralysis affects one side of the body more than the other. When there is one-sided weakness, this is known as hemiparesis; when there is one-sided paralysis, this is known as hemiplegia, although sometimes these terms are used interchangeably.

Problems with weakness and paralysis can affect the ability to use one’s limbs safely. Activities of daily living such as washing and dressing may be difficult or even impossible for the survivor to do independently without assistance or aids.

Weakness or paralysis may impact a survivor’s ability to drive or complete physical activities that they enjoyed before their injury such as participation in sports or going shopping independently.

Always speak to your GP, neurologist or rehabilitation team about weakness or paralysis. A physiotherapist may be able to suggest exercises to help, while an occupational therapist may be able to help with accessing equipment or aids. Neuropsychologists or clinical psychologists/ counsellors with experience in brain injury may be able to support with the emotional impact of living with weakness or paralysis after brain injury.

Ataxia

Ataxia is irregular, uncontrolled movement or tremor affecting any part of the body. Using one’s hands may be difficult, especially for tasks requiring fine movements such as handwriting and cooking. There may be speech and swallowing issues. Muscle weakness may cause continence problems (bladder and bowel functioning). Movement of the eyes may cause headaches, dizziness and difficulties with reading and seeing.

Ataxia may cause a survivor to move too quickly or too slowly, which could put their safety at risk.

Always speak to your GP, neurologist, or rehabilitation team about ataxia. The support required will depend on the effects of ataxia. For example, a physiotherapist may be able to help by suggesting exercises, while an occupational therapist may be able to help with accessing equipment or aids.  A speech and language therapist may be able to help with slurred speech (dysarthria) or swallowing issues. Continence nurses may be able to advise with incontinence issues. Neuropsychologists or clinical psychologists/counsellors with experience in brain injury may be able to support with the emotional impact of living with ataxia after brain injury.

Balance and dizziness issues

A brain injury can cause problems with balance and dizziness, which can make it difficult to move around or complete day-to-day tasks safely. People may feel nauseous depending on the type and duration of the dizziness. There may be an increased risk of falls.

Balance and dizziness problems may impact a survivor’s ability to drive or complete physical activities that they enjoyed before their injury such as participation in sport or going shopping independently.

Always speak to your GP, neurologist or rehabilitation team about balance and dizziness problems. A physiotherapist may be able to help by suggesting exercises, while an occupational therapist may be able to help with accessing equipment or aids. Medication may be prescribed to help with nausea. Neuropsychologists or clinical psychologists/ counsellors with experience in brain injury may be able to support with the emotional impact of living with balance and dizziness issues after brain injury.

Sensory impairment – touch, smell, vision, hearing, tasting

Sensation of touch on the skin may be reduced, lost, or heightened so that it becomes uncomfortable or even painful to be touched. A person with reduced sensation may not be able to notice when a surface is hot, which may put them at risk of burns. Intimacy with partners may also be affected.

A person’s sense of smell or taste may be affected – these systems are often linked. Enjoyment of food may be lost, as things may taste or smell different or not smell/ taste of anything at all – this may affect nutritional intake if foods are avoided. Losing the sense of smell can mean a person does not notice warning smells such as smoke from a fire or gas leaking, which could put their safety at risk.

Hearing may become sensitive or completely lost. Some people may experience tinnitus, a frequent or constant noise in the ear (ringing, buzzing, throbbing, or other such noise), which can interfere with hearing other sounds in the environment. Hearing aids may help to correct some of these issues but often more specialist support is needed.

A wide range of possible visual problems after brain injury can affect the quantity and quality of what a survivor sees. Perception of colours, space movement and shapes can be changed. Some people may see black or blurred spots in their visual field. Glasses may help to correct some of these issues, but often more specialist support is needed.

The type of therapist best suited to support with sensory impairment will depend on the type of sensory issue. Speak to your GP about a referral to a suitable specialist.

Fatigue

Fatigue is an overwhelming tiredness that is very commonly felt after any type of brain injury. It is often described as a ‘mental fog’ that comes out of the blue and can affect the ability to concentrate on and process information. Many people feel they have to stop what they are doing and rest when feeling fatigued.

Fatigue is a fluctuating effect of brain injury – this means that it can come and go, with no set pattern as to when it may start. However, many people notice that they feel fatigued after a period of activity, such as shopping, socialising, travelling, etc. Concentrating for long periods of time, for instance, when working, can also cause fatigue.

Learning to notice the signs of fatigue and taking rest when they start is key to managing it.

Hormonal imbalances

Hormones are responsible for regulating many processes in our body, such as emotions, temperature regulation, hunger and thirst, sleep, breathing, growth, and sexual functioning, among others. Any of these processes can be affected by a brain injury if the parts of the brain responsible for hormone production or regulation are damaged.

Hormonal imbalances may be left undetected, as many of the symptoms are similar to other effects of brain injury. For instance, depression is very common after brain injury, but it can also be due to hormonal imbalances.

Hormone therapy can sometimes be used to help to regulate hormones. Endocrinologists are specialists that can help with diagnosing and treating hormonal imbalances.

Speech problems

Aphasia is a term used to describe problems with using language (speaking, reading, writing, and listening).

Difficulties with controlling the muscles used for speech after brain injury can cause slow or slurred speech (known as dysarthria), which can make it difficult to be understood by others. This can be tiring and frustrating; however, people who spend a lot of time with the survivor may learn to ‘tune in’.

Some survivors may lose the ability to speak altogether and might need to rely on using communication aids.

It should never be assumed that just because someone cannot express themselves, they do not understand information or have lost their intelligence.

A speech and language therapist can help with many types of speech problems.

There are many cognitive processes that take place when using language, and any of these can also be affected by brain injury.

Headaches

Many people suffer with headaches after brain injury, especially following a traumatic brain injury or in the early days of recovery.

There are several different types of headaches. Some can be managed with medication, while others may require other types of treatment.  

Headaches can make it difficult to manage on a day-to-day basis and can be worsened by other effects of brain injury such as fatigue.

GPs and neurologists can help with managing headaches by prescribing suitable medication or exploring other treatment options, such as providing a referral to a pain clinic.

Epilepsy

Brain injury can make some people prone to epileptic seizures or ‘fits’. These are most frequent in the first week after brain injury and may improve after this. However, some people may have ongoing problems with epilepsy after brain injury.

There are different types of seizures and knowing what type you have can be helpful in understanding how to manage it.

GPs, neurologists, and epilepsy nurses can support survivors with managing their epilepsy. Medication is often prescribed, while it can also be useful to ensure that others in the survivor’s life know what to do in the event of a seizure. Guidance on this is available in our factsheet Epilepsy after brain injury.

Epilepsy may affect someone’s ability to complete tasks safely such as driving. You should always consult your relevant licensing agency after a brain injury to assess your suitability to drive.

Sexual dysfunction

A person’s interest in or their ability to have sex can be impacted following brain injury.

There may be physical issues, for instance, a person may have altered sensation, or they may have reduced mobility, making having sex difficult, uncomfortable, or even impossible. The emotional and cognitive effects of brain injury can also interfere with sexual functioning; for instance, depression may cause a survivor to no longer feel interested in sex, or cause a change in body image or confidence that affects their sexual functioning.

Intimacy between sexual partners can be affected, which may cause relationship issues. Sexual functioning in partners of brain injury survivors may also be affected by their own personal experiences. For instance, taking on a caring role may change how they feel about being a sexual partner, especially if their caring role involves personal care. More information on these issues is available on our webpage Relationships after brain injury.

Survivors with sexual dysfunction may feel embarrassed or unable to talk about these effects; however, sex is a normal and important part of life. Different treatments are available depending on the underlying cause of the sexual dysfunction. GPs may be able to prescribe medication or provide referrals to therapists to help, such as sex therapists or psychosexual counsellors. Clinical neuropsychologists may be able to assist with some aspects of sexual dysfunction.

Continence issues

A survivor may have difficulty with controlling their bladder or fully emptying their bowels. There may be occasional leaks of urine or a complete loss of bladder/ bowel function causing regular toileting accidents.

It might be necessary for a survivor to wear continence pads to manage this issue or to plan outings carefully to ensure there are always toilets nearby.

Incontinence may affect a survivor’s confidence in going out, socialising or being intimate with a partner. It can cause embarrassment or feelings of loss of dignity.

Specialists such as urologists or continence nurses can help with assessing incontinence and identifying ways to manage this. Neuropsychologists or clinical psychologists/ counsellors with experience in brain injury may be able to support with the emotional impact of living with continence issues after brain injury.

Where can I get help with the physical effects of brain injury?

There are a number of different professionals who can help with the physical effects of brain injury, such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and nurses. There may be medication, treatments, equipment, or lifestyle changes that professionals can recommend to help cope with the physical effects of brain injury.

It is a good idea to start by speaking to your GP about any issues you are having, as they may be able to prescribe medication or refer you to an appropriate service that can help. If you are under the care of a neurologist or rehabilitation team, they may be able to help with managing some of the physical effects of brain injury.

Living with any of the effects of brain injury can cause a range of emotions. Feelings such as frustration, sadness and worry are all normal emotional reactions to the changes that living life with a brain injury can bring. Professionals such as clinical psychologists, clinical neuropsychologists, or counsellors with experience in brain injury can help manage the emotions related to living with the effects of brain injury.

Our nurse-led helpline is also available to offer a listening ear and emotional support and to help with any questions about living with the effects of brain injury.

How do I cope with the physical effects of brain injury?

Coping with the physical effects of brain injury will depend on the types of physical effects you have. For some types of physical effects, there may be suitable medication or therapies that can help. It is a good idea to start by speaking to your GP about any issues you are having as they may be able to prescribe medication or refer you to an appropriate service that can help.

Our series of publications cover many of the physical effects of brain injury and can offer detailed information on coping tips. For more information, visit the Information Library.

It can help to cope with the changes of living life with a brain injury if you feel well supported by friends and family. Share information from Headway with your loved ones to help them understand the effects of brain injury and how best to support you.

Remember you can get support for living with the effects of brain injury from your nearest Headway group or branch, or by contacting our nurse-led helpline. Visit the Supporting you section of our website to find out more.

When will I recover from the physical effects of brain injury?

The physical effects of brain injury are often the first ones to be treated following the injury. They may therefore improve quicker than other types of effects. However, physical effects can last for longer (weeks, months, years), or even be lifelong and may require adaptations or equipment to cope.

No two experiences of brain injury are the same, so there are no rules about when you will recover from the physical effects of brain injury. Receiving support from suitably qualified professionals can help with the recovery process while using adaptive aids and learning new ways of coping can help to readjust.

Our nurse-led helpline and local groups and branches can also offer support with coping with the physical effects of brain injury.


Related information

My story

Fighting fatigue

Managing fatigue is not about taking it away but controlling it. With a little help from Headway’s Managing fatigue after brain injury booklet and her neuropsychologist, Sarah Tomlinson was so successful in controlling hers that she was able to sit her final university exam only two and half weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumour.

Read story