Brain & Neuro Injuries

The nervous system—which includes an intricate network of nerves throughout the body, the brain, and spinal cord—is a very complex communication system that controls and regulates the bodily functions. Unfortunately, this amazing system is vulnerable to disease and injury. Neurological injuries often have devastating and wide-reaching consequences, given the vast and vital functions of the nervous system.

Common instances of neurological injuries can include sports injuries, auto injuries, other traumatic accidents, violence, exposure to toxic substance, and adverse drug reactions. The consequences of neurological injuries depend on what part of the nervous system is affected by the trauma or adverse stimulus. Thus, it is helpful to understand a bit about the structure and function of this complex system in order to better understand neurological injuries.

The nervous system is divided into two main parts: the peripheral nervous system and the central nervous system. The central nervous system is composed of the brain and spinal cord.The peripheral nervous system is composed of the cranial nerves, spinal nerves, and the autonomic nervous system.The central nervous system is composed of the brain and spinal cord.

The Brain

The brain is an exceptional organ, which is connected to every other organ system in the body. The brain is responsible for receiving, reviewing, organizing, and sending enormous amounts of information, often simultaneously. It controls and coordinates our thoughts, actions, moods, movements, sensory perceptions, and consciousness. The brain has three parts: the cerebrum, the brain stem, and the cerebellum.

The cerebrum is a mass of tissue containing most of the nerves in the nervous system. It is divided into two halves, or hemispheres, each of which is further divided into four parts, or lobes. The lobes (the frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal) each serve a number of specific functions. The effects of neurological injury affecting the cerebrum often depend on the location of the brain damage. For example, if a person suffers damage to the left frontal lobe, they may lose control of language functioning. Damage to the temporal lobes may lead to trouble recognizing others and/or trouble with memory recall. Damage to one side of the brain, as in stroke, can result in loss of functioning to the opposite side of the body and other cognitive impairments.

The brain stem is responsible for controlling many of the vital functions of the body, such as breathing, swallowing, heartbeat, and blood pressure. Significant damage to the brain stem caused by a neurological injury is most often fatal.

The cerebellum is responsible for coordinating the body’s movements, balance and equilibrium, and muscle tone. Damage to this part of the brain with a neurological injury can result in loss of coordination and movements that are slow or uncontrolled.

The Spinal Cord

The spinal cord is a long tube-like structure stretching from the brain to the bottom of the spine and is protected by the spinal column or vertebrae. The spinal cord carries sensory and motor information between the brain and the rest of the body. The spine is divided into sections. From the top to bottom, these sections include the cranial, cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral divisions. Cranial nerves control the motor and sensory functioning of the head (such as the eyes, nose, ears, facial muscles and more). Spinal nerves, which are part of the peripheral nervous system, extend from the spinal cord at regular intervals down the spine. These nerves function to carry messages to and from the spinal cord and specific areas of the body. With neurological injuries affecting the spinal cord ) the area of damage will determine the nature and extent of the injury.

Damage higher up the spinal cord typically results in more extensive injury. For example, damage at the cervical level may result in motor or sensory disturbances of the lower and upper limbs and the trunk. Paralysis is often the result of spinal cord injury. Damage to areas higher up on the spinal cord often results in quadriplegia, or loss of feeling and/or function in all four limbs and the trunk. Damage in the thoracic level or below often results in paraplegia, or loss of feeling and/or function to the lower limbs and possibly part of the trunk.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system and is response for regulating the automatic functions of the body, such as bladder, blood pressure, pupil dilation, salivation, digestion, heart rate, and more. The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, which often act in opposite directions to effectively control the non-conscious workings of the body. When neurological injury results in damage to this system, called autonomic neuropathy, the following can occur: cardiovascular problems, sexual difficulties, loss of bladder and bowel control, heat intolerance, trouble digesting, and more.

Diagnosing Neurological Injury

In many cases following a traumatic injury to the nervous system, prompt medical attention is required to mitigate further damage. A neurological examination (which is different than a psychological exam) is often performed if neurological injury is suspected. A doctor will take the patient’s medical history and perform a physical examination. During a physical exam, the doctor will assess the patient’s mental status, test the functions of the cranial, motor and sensory nerves, test the reflexes, assess the person’s coordination, stance, and gait, determine if the autonomic nervous system has been affected, and evaluate the blood flow to the brain.

Thanks to advances in medicine, an increasing number of sophisticated diagnostic tests are available to diagnose neurological injury. These include, but are not limited to: spinal tap, Computed Tomography (CT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA), Position Emission Tomography (PET), and more.

In many cases, immediate medical care must be administered to prevent and reduce the risk of subsequent damage caused by the initial trauma. For example, with traumatic brain injury, efforts must be made to prevent or reduce intracranial bleeding and pressure, which can aggravate the damage caused by the original trauma.

Effects of Neurological Injury

Unfortunately, neurological injuries are often catastrophic, resulting in severe temporary or permanent disability, paralysis, impaired motor, sensory and cognitive functioning, pain, and sometimes death.