What to expect after a serious head injury or brain injury is sustained in an accident

Symptoms of a serious head injury

Although head injuries aren’t always visible to the naked eye, there are a number of symptoms that can indicate a serious brain injury has occurred. The symptoms may appear quickly, right after the injury, or within a few days. Common initial signs of a serious brain injury include:

  • Loss of consciousness or “blacking out”
  • Confusion, agitation, anger, or any other unusual emotions
  • Slurred speech and difficulty communicating
  • Repeated vomiting or nausea
  • Headache, especially a headache that gets worse over time
  • Seizures, convulsions, and loss of coordination
  • Changes in vision
  • Dilation of one or both pupils
  • Clear fluid draining from the nose or ears
  • Difficulty controlling bowels or bladder

If you suspect a brain injury in yourself or a loved one after an accident, it’s important to seek immediate medical treatment. Brain injuries can rapidly get worse, and serious secondary injuries can result from undiagnosed swelling or bleeding in the brain after an accident. Your wellbeing should be the priority. If you were hurt at work and your employer won’t help you see a doctor, then seek care from an emergency room or doctor of your own choosing.

Types of brain injuries

There are many ways the brain can be injured, but the two types of injuries most likely to happen in an accident are:

  • Traumatic brain injuries, which are caused by trauma or a blow to the head
  • Acquired brain injuries, which can happen when there is a lack of oxygen to the brain, for example

Depending on the circumstances, different parts of the brain may be injured in an accident, including:

  • The brain stem. The brain stem may be injured when an object makes sharp contact with the back of the head, neck, or cervical spine. Trauma to the base of the brain can affect a victim’s attention span and short-term memory. The brain stem is also responsible for regulating arousal and other functions, so injuries can often lead to symptoms of disorientation, frustration, and anger.
  • The temporal lobe. Injury to the temporal lobe affects cognitive skills, such as memory and language, and may occur when something strikes the side of the head directly behind the ears. This is also where the brain's limbic system is housed, which helps regulate emotions.
  • The frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is one of the most commonly injured parts of the brain. It is the largest area of the brain, stretching from behind the eyes to the crown of the head. The frontal lobe is the center of cognitive functions and acts as the behavioral control center.

The Glasgow Coma Scale

When someone sustains a head injury in an accident, doctors will generally use the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) to determine the severity. The scale A Close-Up View of a Brain MRImakes use of three tests: an eye opening response, a verbal response, and a motor response. A value is assigned to each response, and the total is tallied to give the Glasgow Coma Scale score. The lowest possible total GCS score is 3, meaning that the person is in a deep coma. The highest GCS score is 15, meaning that the person is fully awake and conscious. The total GCS score helps doctors determine the level of severity of a brain injury:

  • Severe head injury (GCS score of 8 or less). The symptoms of a severe head injury include loss of consciousness or post-accident amnesia for more than 24 hours after the accident. These types of brain injuries can be life threatening, and patients who survive such injuries often suffer from long-term physical and cognitive impairments. The long-term prognosis for patients with severe brain injuries can vary from a vegetative state to more minor impairments, where the person can function with help. Most patients with this kind of serious injury will require extensive rehabilitation.
  • Moderate head injury (GCS score of 9 to 12). The symptoms of a moderate head injury include memory loss after the accident that lasts for longer than 30 minutes, but for less than 24 hours. This category of head injury also includes with skull fractures. Patients suffering from a moderate brain injury may suffer from long-term physical or cognitive deficits, and the success of their recovery will depend on the area of the brain that was affected by the accident. Patients will often need rehabilitation to counter the effects of a moderate brain injury.
  • Mild head injury (GCS score of 13 to 15). The symptoms of a mild head injury include loss of consciousness, loss of short-term memory (such as an inability to recall the events immediately before or after the accident), or an altered mental state, such as dizziness, disorientation, or confusion. Typically, the symptoms last less than 30 minutes. Most people who have suffered a mild brain injury will not have any major functional deficits. However, there may be some subtle, long-term impacts, such as headaches or cognitive/memory problems.

As a person recovers, the scale will be reassessed and a new number will be assigned. This number helps doctors and therapists create an effective treatment plan for people with head injuries, and it helps them answer questions about how much a patient might recover, how long it will take to recover, and what the expected quality of life will be. Please note that accurate use of the Glasgow Coma Scale depends on a trained doctor or other medical professional performing the assessment.

How brain injuries can affect your future

No two brain injuries are the same, and due to limited scientific understanding of brain function, every case and every prognosis is different. However, the more severe the brain injury is, the higher the chances that it will continue to negatively impact a patient's life in the future. This is why it is important that accident victims and their families have a very frank discussion with their medical care team to understand their current state and what the future may hold. 

The recovery process can also be very unpredictable. The condition of a patient and his or her symptoms can change over time, and a number of complications can arise, including:

  • Changes in a victim’s state of consciousness, including coma, vegetative state, minimally conscious state, and “locked-in” syndrome.
  • Seizures or post-traumatic epilepsy.
  • Brain infections or infections of the protective tissues around the brain (meninges).
  • Nerve damage, leading to paralysis, loss of vision, loss of sensation to the body or face, loss of sense of smell, and more.
  • Cognitive difficulties, including problems with learning, memory, reasoning, judgment, decision making, problem solving, etc.
  • Problems communicating due to difficulty speaking, difficulty organizing thoughts to speak, difficulty understanding spoken words or body gestures, trouble following a conversation, and much more.
  • Sensory problems like balance issues, ringing ears, impaired hand-eye coordination, blind spots, double vision, bad smells, bitter taste in mouth, tingling in extremities, etc.
  • Gradual degeneration of the brain, leading to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Dementia pugilistica.

In addition, victims of brain injury may face long-term or permanent symptoms that impair their ability to make a living or to enjoy life to the fullest. This might include issues with:

  • Communication. Communicating can be incredibly difficult for family members with brain injuries. Often, it can be difficult to communicate basic needs and desires, and it can also be difficult to express more complicated thoughts and ideas.
  • Personality and behavior changes. People with brain injuries and their families sometimes struggle to adjust to long-term changes in personality and behavior. After a brain injury, the person affected may experience changes in sociability, rash decision-making, an increase in risk-taking behaviors, an inability to gauge social situations, lapses in judgment, trouble concentrating, and other unusual changes. Although some of these changes could improve throughout recovery, it is important to understand that some changes can be permanent. There are hundreds of examples of brain injury victims who woke up after their accident a significantly altered person.
  • Emotional health and coping skills. Brain injury victims face many struggles after suffering from a brain injury, not the least of which is coming to terms with an uncertain future. The stress of adjustment, as well as emotional changes caused by the brain injury, can mean that the victim struggles with increased depression, anxiety, mood swings, irritability, and other emotional issues.
  • Walking and mobility. Learning to walk again after a brain injury is more complicated than it might seem. Several different areas of the brain contribute to the skill of walking, and injury to one or more of these areas can be devastating. It can take months or even years for victims to learn to walk again and gain mobility.
  • Memory and learning. People suffering from a brain injury often have problems remembering what they’ve learned since the accident. They often also have challenges with attention, processing speed, memory, and comprehension.

While it may seem as though you and your family have not had time to recover from the shock of a brain or spine injury, it is important to consider rehabilitation and therapy options as quickly as possible. A brain injury victim’s best chances for a full recovery often depend on the quality of the rehabilitation they receive, and how fast they get it. Rehabilitation services that may help brain injury and spinal cord injury victims with long-term symptoms might include counseling, group therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech-language pathology services.

Questions about a brain injury? Considering filing a lawsuit? Contact VB Attorneys

Any kind of trauma or injury to the brain can be life altering, for both the victim and his or her family. Often they need the help of a highly experienced attorney to get the care and compensation they need to recover as fully as possible. Contact our Houston brain injury lawyers today for a free case review. Your initial meeting with us is completely free and without obligation, and it will give you a chance to learn more about your rights.


Vuk Stevan Vujasinovic
Experienced Injury Lawyer. First Generation American. Life-Long Texan. Husband. Father.