A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a sudden jolt to your head that changes the way your brain acts. A TBI can change the way you think, act, feel, and move. Because everybody's brain is different, no two TBIs are the same. That means that your symptoms and recovery will be hard to predict. However, pain is one symptom that many people with TBI have.
Because a TBI is caused by a brain shock, there may be an injury to the brain that causes pain. There may also be an injury to your neck or other parts of your body. The most common types of pain after a TBI are headache and neck pain.
There is a chance that having a TBI will change your brain in a way that makes pain seem worse. Also, pain can make some other symptoms of a TBI worse. Studies show that about half of people being treated for a TBI complain of long-lasting pain, also called chronic pain.
Why Managing Pain Is Important
Work with your TBI team to get your pain under control. Here's why:
- Pain can keep you from participating in activities that help your brain heal, like exercise and physical therapy.
- Pain can make common symptoms of a TBI worse. These include sleep problems, fatigue, slowed thinking, mood swings, anxiety, and depression.
- Some TBI symptoms, like depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, and fatigue, can lower your resistance to pain. This makes your pain seem worse.
How to Manage TBI Pain
Strong pain medications, called opiates or narcotics, are usually not the answer for pain from a TBI. These pain medications can have unpredictable effects on your brain. In fact, these medications can make some TBI problems worse, like slowed thinking, memory loss, substance abuse, fatigue, and depression.
That's why the first choice for pain medicine is what's called a nonnarcotic medication. Examples include muscle relaxants, numbing medications applied to the skin, and over-the-counter pain relievers, like Tylenol or Advil.
- Other important ways to manage pain include:
- Get daily exercise for your body and your brain.
- Learn to avoid stress and relax. Try listening to music, meditating, or deep breathing.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco.
- Take part in physical therapy to stretch your muscles and make them stronger.
- Work with a mental health expert to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Avoid foods and drinks that seem to trigger your headaches.
- Try alternative treatments, such as acupuncture or massage therapy.
Living with pain affects you and everyone around you. It is important to talk about your pain and seek the support of friends and loved ones. Avoiding other people and suffering in silence is dangerous for you. It also will only make your pain feel worse. Learn as much as you can about your condition and work closely with your TBI team.
Pain and other symptoms of a TBI usually go away with time. How long it takes your brain to recover depends on the type of injury you had. Managing pain well can help you heal faster. Don't take any medications for pain unless you check with your health care provider or TBI team, and call them if your pain is getting worse. Never try to treat pain on your own with drugs or alcohol.
Veterans Health Library. U.S. Department of Veterans Health.