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Traumatic brain injury


Traumatic brain injury (TBI), also referred to as head injury, is acute physical damage to the brain caused by an external impact. TBI is most frequently seen in young children, teenagers, and individuals above the age of 65. Motor vehicle accidents are the most common cause. Although the skull is often fractured in the process, acute cerebral damage can occur even if the skull remains intact. Clinical findings depend on the severity, type, and location of injury. Impaired consciousness is common in more severe TBI, whereas patients with mild TBI often only experience transient confusion, headaches, or nausea. Elevated intracranial pressure, hemorrhages, and seizures may occur rapidly after injury in severe cases, or develop as complications over the course of the illness. Skull fractures may cause immediate damage to sensory organs or cranial nerves, while also increasing the risk of infection. A noncontrast head CT is the diagnostic method of choice for detecting common pathologies such as fractures, midline shifts, or hemorrhages. Treatment is usually not required for mild TBI, although patients should be monitored for 24 hours to rule out complications. In most cases of more severe TBI, specific medical (e.g., reduction of intracranial pressure, prevention of seizures or infections) or surgical (e.g., decompressive craniectomy) measures are necessary.


  • Acute physical damage to the brain as a result of an external force



  • Incidence: ∼ 800/100,000
  • Age: especially children 0–4 years, teenagers and young adults 15–24 years, and adults > 65 years
  • Sex: >


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.


  1. Falls
  2. Motor vehicle accidents
  3. Contact sports (e.g., football)
  4. Gunshot wounds



Primary and secondary injury

  • Primary injury: acute physical injury that is dealt to the brain during the traumatic event
    • Acceleration-deceleration trauma
      • Coup injury: cerebral contusion on the side of an impact
      • Contrecoup: additional cerebral contusion on the opposite side of impact
    • Contact trauma: may involve fractures of the skull or superficial wounds (focal injury)
  • Secondary injury: pathologic changes induced by inadequate cerebral perfusion and/or inflammatory processes after primary injury

Consequences of injury


Clinical features

Clinical findings vary depending on the location, severity, and type of injury. In addition to the initial presentation, further symptoms may develop as lesions progress (e.g., intracranial hemorrhages).

General symptoms

Signs of basilar skull fracture

Possible traumatic brain injury must always be considered in a patient with a reduced level of consciousness (unless another cause is evident)!

Skull fractures, (worsening) neurological impairment, repeated vomiting, and seizures are indicative of more severe trauma or intracranial hemorrhage



General approach to TBI patients

Acute stabilization and measures of life support should always take precedence over diagnostic investigations!

  • Cranial CT (without contrast) if consciousness is impaired
  • Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) for evaluation of consciousness
    • Assessment of neurological status and trauma severity in patients with traumatic brain injury (mostly used in acute cases)
    • Maximum score 15 points (full consciousness); minimum score 3 points (coma or death)
Points Eye opening Verbal response Motor response
6 Obeys commands
5 Appropriate words and oriented Localizes pain stimulus
4 Spontaneously Appropriate words but confused Withdraws from pain
3 To verbal command Inappropriate words Decorticate posture
2 To pain Incomprehensible sounds Decerebrate posture
1 No response No response No response
Mild head injury: GCS score 13–15 Moderate head injury: GCS score 9–12 Severe head injury: GCS score ≤ 8 (Indication for endotracheal intubation)
  • Additional investigations: exact description of injury mechanism with evaluation of injuries; full medical and neurological examination




Mild TBI

  • No specific treatment
  • Monitoring for 24 h
  • Temporary rest and symptomatic pharmacotherapy
  • For athletes: Refrain from contact sports for a week, re-evaluate at that time
    • Observe for 6 hours in the ED for worsening
    • Following discharge → six stages of gradual recovery, each stage requiring at least 24 hours
      1. No activity
      2. Light aerobic exercise
      3. Sport-specific exercise
      4. Non-contact workouts
      5. Full-contact practice
      6. Return to full play

Acute management checklist for concussion [21]

  • Cognitive rest for 24–48 hours
  • Physical rest for 24–48 hours
  • Supportive care
  • Avoid any medications that can mask the symptoms of concussion (e.g., sedatives). [23]
  • Consider imaging (head CT without contrast) in the following patient groups: [24]
    • Loss of consciousness or post-traumatic amnesia
    • Persistently decreased mental status (GCS < 15)
    • Presence of any focal neurologic deficits
    • Signs of skull fracture on examination
    • Clinical deterioration

More severe TBI




We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.


  • Mild TBI: usually self-limiting
  • Severe TBI: mortality rate as high as 30%


Special patient groups

When evaluating children and infants with TBI, a number of special issues must be observed.

  • Causes:
    • Falls (most common)
    • The possibility of child abuse must always be considered.
  • Clinical features: : esp. bulging anterior fontanelle (↑ ICP)
  • Diagnosis: cranial CT without contrast
    • Identify patients with significant TBI but avoid unnecessary radiographic testing
    • CT recommended for signs of skull fractures, ↑ ICP, major neurologic symptoms (e.g., impaired consciousness, seizures), suspected child abuse
    • Consider CT: if less severe symptoms (e.g., changes in behavior, self-limited vomiting) are present.
  • Management
    • Inpatient observation indications
      • Skull fracture > 3 mm separation or depressed
      • Evidence of traumatic brain injury on imaging (e.g.., intracranial hemorrhage)
      • Signs of ↑ ICP (e.g., headache, altered mental status)
      • Suspected physical abuse
      • Caregivers who are unreliable or unable to return if neurological deficits develop within 24 hours after release.
    • Release and at-home observation for 24 hours
      • Patients without neurological deficits and non-depressed linear skull fracture < 3 mm separation
      • Requires a caregiver who can reliably recognize new clinical neurological deficits and return the patient to the hospital if such manifestations arise


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last updated 11/19/2020
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