Post-traumatic amnesia

Post-traumatic amnesia (PTA) is the time after a period of unconsciousness when the injured person is conscious and awake, but is behaving or talking in a bizarre or uncharacteristic manner.

The person has no continuous memory of day-to-day events, and recent events may be equally affected, so that they are unable to remember what happened a few hours or even a few minutes ago. To complicate the issue, PTA can sometimes occur without the person having been unconscious beforehand.

The behaviour exhibited during PTA can be very distressing for family and friends to see.

Post-traumatic amnesia symptoms

The most obvious symptom is the loss of memory for the present time. The person may recognise family and friends but be unable to process the fact that they are in hospital or have had an injury of some kind.

Other symptoms of PTA include:

  • Confusion, agitation, distress and anxiety
  • Uncharacteristic behaviours such as violence, aggression, swearing, shouting, disinhibition
  • Inability to recognise familiar people
  • Tendency to wander
  • In some cases people may be very quiet, docil, loving and friendly

What can be done about post-traumatic amnesia?

PTA is a stage of recovery that the person goes through after the injury and, while it is very distressing for family and friends and may present a management problem for hospital staff, it is important to remember that this is a phase that will pass.

Download our Post-traumatic amnesia factsheet for more information about dealing with someone who is experiencing PTA.

How long will post-traumatic amnesia last?

PTA may last for a few minutes, hours, days, weeks or even, in rare cases, months.

Certain types of medication have been used to try to improve the condition, with varying degrees of success. Sadly, there is usually no way of knowing exactly how long it will last.

What are the long-term effects?

PTA itself does not have any adverse effects, unless the person's behaviour causes them to injure themselves. However, the duration of PTA, along with length of time in coma, is a good indicator of the severity of the brain injury and its likely long-term effects.

Visit our Injury severity page using the link on the right to find out how the length of time in PTA indicates the severity of a person's brain injury.