TBI and Substance Abuse Addiction

Alcohol and concussions can be a dangerous mix, and the same holds true for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and substance abuse.

Traumatic Brain Injury - TBI and Substance Abuse Addiction

In a split second, a terrible accident that leads to traumatic brain injury can change the course of a person’s life forever. It is one of the starker realities of our physical vulnerability and fragility. This type of tragedy can impair or alter the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves.

Unfortunately, the confusion and pain that follows can drive self-destructive choices and is one of the reasons traumatic brain injury and substance abuse or addiction are often linked.

Not only are those living with a TBI at greater risk for developing a substance use disorder, but people struggling with substance abuse issues are also more likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury due to impairment from drugs or alcohol.

For recovery to be effective and successful, it is critical that both the traumatic brain injury and the addictive disorder be identified and treated at the same time. This type of therapeutic approach that addresses the severity of each condition together is known as dual diagnosis treatment.

Traumatic Brain Injury Causes

A traumatic brain injury can be caused by a forceful shock or blow to the head. This includes not just direct impact, but sudden movements that jolt or force the head out of its normal position. Common examples include whiplash during a car accident, a sports injury, or being exposed to the blast of a nearby explosion.

While these injuries can range from moderate to severe, they are damaging enough to change the way a person’s brain works, altering its chemical makeup.

In the United States, an estimated 2.5 million people suffer a traumatic brain injury every year, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

In truth, though, most experts agree that this number is underreported because not all of these injuries are reported or even diagnosed.

Men are at a greater risk for TBI injuries than women. Adolescent males, aged 15 to 19, along with seniors aged 75 or older, are the demographics most likely to suffer a TBI.

Common Causes of Traumatic Brain Injury Can Include:

  • Car, motorcycle, bicycle, or other vehicle-related crashes that involve a violent force or impact to the head
  • Sports-related TBIs among athletes are a serious concern, especially among teenagers. While contact sports like football, boxing, basketball, and others are known risks, even soccer players continually using their heads to field the ball can lead to a traumatic brain injury
  • Falls from either standing positions or from a greater height, such as from a rooftop or falling off of a ladder or other perch
  • The impact from falling debris, like rocks, heavy tree branches, baseballs, or even melting icicles formed on the sides of tall buildings
  • Shockwave impacts from bomb explosions or improvised explosive devices, are more often seen in war zones
  • Violent physical assaults, such as domestic abuse, bar fights, shaken infant syndrome, or child abuse

Not surprisingly, substance abuse issues put people in danger of traumatic brain injury. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) reports that 30 percent of people hospitalized for TBI have a history of substance abuse problems.

TBI and Addiction to Drugs or Alcohol

TBI and drug addiction or alcohol dependence are complicated disorders that deserve compassion, understanding and support. Recognizing the pain a brain injury can cause beyond just the initial trauma is vital.

People living with a TBI are very often dealing with incredibly difficult symptoms related to their injury.

Symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury Can Include:

  • High risk for mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Issues with memory, reading and writing, problem-solving, language and even learning new things
  • Extreme mood swings, from irritability and anger to deep emotional turmoil
  • Physical conditions like full or partial paralysis, muscle coordination issues, physical weakness, vision problems, chronic headaches, and seizures
  • Changes in critical bodily functions like sleep and sexual ability
  • Loss of emotional regulation, including the ability to empathize with others or extreme difficulty with social skills
  • Increased impulsivity
  • Poor decision making
  • Reliance on drugs or alcohol for pain and stress relief

The combination of brain injury and substance abuse is particularly dangerous because drugs, alcohol, and even prescription medications can have a greater impact on the chemistry of an already wounded brain.

Alcohol and drug abuse will definitely impede recovery and, in many cases, will make the TBI symptoms much more pronounced and severe.

It’s unfortunate that many people use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate as a way of seeking relief from the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury.

In the short term, using substances may offer some form of temporary relief from the physical and emotional distress of a TBI. This relief is usually short-lived though, and often requires higher doses or more frequent use to experience the same amount of comfort as when they first started using.

Almost every person will develop a tolerance to substance use over time, requiring increased usage and dependence that can lead to addiction.

But for those with a brain injury, the tolerance and dependence is often amplified as their brain struggles to compensate for the changes in brain structure and function due to the injury as well as addiction to drugs or alcohol.

This requires a proper dual diagnosis treatment program to overcome the effects of TBI and addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Substance Abuse Addiction Treatment

Traumatic brain injury and substance abuse treatment can be an effective approach toward recovery.

Drug and Alcohol Detox

Treatment usually begins with a drug and alcohol detox program that can last from five days to a week or two, depending on the substance and assessment of all factors.

Detox is necessary to safely and comfortably eliminate the drugs or alcohol from the brain and body, and overcome the physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms.

Sometimes medications are used during detox, and it’s necessary that trained professionals closely monitor the person during this phase to decrease the risk of seizures and other complications.

TBI and Addiction Treatment Program

After detox has been completed, the next stage is the formal treatment program to address the issues of TBI and addiction.

A dual diagnosis treatment program will focus on healing the brain and overcoming the reasons a person is dependent on drugs or alcohol. The co-occurring disorders of addiction and TBI will be treated at the same time for the best chance of recovery.

Common Treatment Therapies for Traumatic Brain Injury Recovery Can Include:

These treatment modalities can help with both substance use addiction and traumatic brain injury for recovery.

One-on-one sessions with a therapist are very helpful, and often times group therapy can be effective as well.

In addition to these specific therapies, it’s important to approach brain injuries and addiction from a holistic approach that also promotes better lifestyle routines including sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

The ultimate goal is to discover the root causes of substance dependence, while at the same time addressing the TBI symptoms to heal the brain and improve the overall quality of life.


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