Physical effects of brain injury

Most people make an excellent physical recovery after a brain injury, which can mean there are few, or no, outwards signs that an injury has occurred. There are often physical problems present that are not always so apparent, but can have a real impact on daily life.

You can find out more about the cognitive effects of a brain injury below. The Headway helpline will be happy to talk through any specific questions you may have. 

Mobility

Mobility can be affected following brain injury. Movement can become very slow and balance can be affected. Indeed, having a brain injury can sometimes feel like ‘living life in the slow lane’. Some people may need a wheelchair or other mobility aids, because their poor balance and co-ordination means they cannot walk without support. The fact that they use a wheelchair does not necessarily mean that the person cannot stand or walk for short distances.

Spasticity

Limbs may be stiff or weak, and the range of movement limited. Often one side of the body is affected more than the other, depending on the area of the brain that is injured. Spasticity may cause pain or discomfort. If this occurs it is advisable to seek help from a GP, who may be able to prescribe drugs to reduce muscle spasms.

Weakness or paralysis

Weakness or paralysis often affects one side of the body more than the other. This is known as ‘hemiplegia’ and is particularly common after a stroke. This could mean that help is needed during personal care and when getting dressed or undressed. Muscle weakness may affect continence, and continence aids may be needed.

Ataxia

Ataxia is irregular, uncontrolled movement or tremor affecting the co-ordination of movements. The person’s hands may be shaky or clumsy, and handwriting may be difficult or impossible.

Sensory impairment

Sensation of touch on the skin may be reduced, lost or exaggerated. It may also be difficult for the person to know where their limbs are positioned without looking at them. Eyesight may be affected, and this may not be correctable with glasses. Odd postures or walking patterns may also be explained by sensory impairments. Taste or sense of smell may be impaired or lost, either in the short or long term.

Fatigue

Excessive tiredness is common to all severities of brain injury, including mild injuries. Tasks that we take for granted, such as getting dressed or walking around can require much more effort after brain injury. It is important to allow for rest periods at regular intervals during the day, and not to feel that everything has to be done at once.

Difficulties with speech

Slow, indistinct or rapid speech is common after a brain injury. It may be hard to understand the person’s speech at first, but the listener may learn to ‘tune in’. Some people may lose the ability to speak altogether. Remember, their inability to express themselves does not mean that they have lost their intelligence.

Epilepsy

Brain injury can make some people prone to epileptic seizures or ‘fits’. Many people who have had a seizure after a brain injury are given a drug for a number of years to reduce the chance of it recurring. The drug may have an overall ‘dampening’ effect on the person’s level of arousal, and therefore on the performance of everyday tasks. Remember the added effect that this could have if the person already has excessive fatigue. It is important to remember that a person who suffers from seizures may not be allowed to drive, and should contact the DVLA for advice.

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.

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