My 28-year-old son was seriously injured in a car accident two years ago and suffered a critical brain injury. He can't walk and is still unable to straighten his legs. What seems to bother him more than anything is how utterly exhausted he is all the time. He was always such an energetic young man and finds the exhaustion terribly frustrating because it prevents him from working as hard as he would like to in physical therapy. How long will the extreme bouts of exhaustion last?
Fatigue is a common problem after brain injury. Estimates of the incidence of fatigue for individuals with TBI range from 50-80 percent. Depression, pain, sleep disturbance, and neuroendocrine abnormalities all have been associated with fatigue after TBI.
You should talk to your son’s physician about this problem so a careful evaluation can be done. Many of the medications that are used to treat spasticity, seizures, and mood can cause fatigue or sleepiness. Sleep disorders are seen in about 30 percent of people TBI even years after injury. In some cases, an overnight sleep study allows you to get a proper diagnosis and decide on treatment. Endocrine problems are becoming increasingly recognized as a cause of fatigue. Low thyroid, low adrenalin, low testosterone, and low growth hormone can all contribute to fatigue. There is a lot of current research being conducted on low growth hormone and how to best assess and treat this increasingly recognized problem.
In some people with TBI — if no cause of fatigue can be found — their doctors often consider stimulants. Common stimulants used include amantadine, methylphenidate (Ritalin), detroamphetamine/ amphetamine (Adderall), modafinil (Provigil), and armodafinil (Nuvigil). Make sure you take your son to a doctor who has experience treating people with brain injury and with using these medications.
Dr. Brian Greenwald is medical director of Center for Head Injuries and the associate medical director of JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute. He is a clinical associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.