A head injury is any injury that results in trauma to the skull or brain. The terms "traumatic brain injury" and "head injury" are often used interchangeably in the medical literature. This broad classification includes neuronal injuries, hemorrhages, vascular injuries, cranial nerve injuries, and subdural hygromas, among many others. These classifications can be further categorized as open (penetrating) or closed head injuries. This depends on if the skull was broken or not. Because head injuries cover such a broad scope of injuries, there are many causes—including accidents, falls, physical assault, or traffic accidents—that can cause head injuries. Many of these are minor, but some can be severe enough to require hospitalization.
The number of new cases is 1.7 million in the United States each year, with about 3% of these incidents leading to death. Adults have head injuries more frequently than any age group resulting from falls, motor vehicle crashes, colliding or being struck by an object, or assaults. Children, however, may experience head injuries from accidental falls or intentional causes (such as being struck or shaken) leading to hospitalization.
Unlike a broken bone where trauma to the body is obvious, head trauma can sometimes be conspicuous or inconspicuous. In the case of an open head injury, the skull is cracked and broken by an object that makes contact with the brain. This leads to bleeding. Other obvious symptoms can be neurological in nature. The person may become sleepy, behave abnormally, lose consciousness, vomit, develop a severe headache, have mismatched pupil sizes, and/or be unable to move certain parts of the body. While these symptoms happen immediately after a head injury occurs, many problems can develop later in life. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is much more likely to develop in a person who has experienced a head injury.
Head injuries include both injuries to the brain and those to other parts of the head, such as the scalp and skull. Head injuries can be closed or open. A closed (non-missile) head injury is where the dura mater remains intact. The skull can be fractured, but not necessarily. A penetrating head injury occurs when an object pierces the skull and breaches the dura mater. Brain injuries may be diffuse, occurring over a wide area, or focal, located in a small, specific area. A head injury may cause skull fracture, which may or may not be associated with injury to the brain. Some patients may have linear or depressed skull fractures.If intracranial hemorrhage occurs, a hematoma within the skull can put pressure on the brain. Types of intracranial hemorrhage include subdural, subarachnoid, extradural, and intraparenchymal hematoma. Craniotomy surgeries are used in these cases to lessen the pressure by draining off blood.
Brain injury can occur at the site of impact, but can also be at the opposite side of the skull due to a "contrecoup" effect (the impact to the head can cause the brain to move within the skull, causing the brain to impact the interior of the skull opposite the head-impact). If the impact causes the head to move, the injury may be worsened, because the brain may ricochet inside the skull causing additional impacts, or the brain may stay relatively still (due to inertia) but be hit by the moving skull (both are contrecoup injuries).
Specific problems after head injury can include
Classification | Concussion
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an exchangeable word used for the word concussion. This term refers to a mild brain injury. This injury is a result due to a blow to the head that could make the person’s physical, cognitive, and emotional behaviors irregular. Symptoms may include clumsiness, fatigue, confusion, nausea, blurry vision, headaches, and others. Mild concussions are associated with sequelae. Severity is measured using various concussion grading systems.
A slightly greater injury is associated with both anterograde and retrograde amnesia (inability to remember events before or after the injury). The amount of time that the amnesia is present correlates with the severity of the injury. In all cases the patients develop postconcussion syndrome, which includes memory problems, dizziness, tiredness, sickness and depression. Cerebral concussion is the most common head injury seen in children.
Classification | Intracranial bleeding
Types of intracranial hemorrhage are roughly grouped into intra-axial and extra-axial. The hemorrhage is considered a focal brain injury; that is, it occurs in a localized spot rather than causing diffuse damage over a wider area.
Classification | Intracranial bleeding | Intra-axial bleeding
Intra-axial hemorrhage is bleeding within the brain itself, or cerebral hemorrhage. This category includes intraparenchymal hemorrhage, or bleeding within the brain tissue, and intraventricular hemorrhage, bleeding within the brain's ventricles (particularly of premature infants). Intra-axial hemorrhages are more dangerous and harder to treat than extra-axial bleeds.
Classification | Intracranial bleeding | Extra-axial bleeding
Extra-axial hemorrhage, bleeding that occurs within the skull but outside of the brain tissue, falls into three subtypes:
- Epidural hemorrhage (extradural hemorrhage) which occur between the dura mater (the outermost meninx) and the skull, is caused by trauma. It may result from laceration of an artery, most commonly the middle meningeal artery. This is a very dangerous type of injury because the bleed is from a high-pressure system and deadly increases in intracranial pressure can result rapidly. However, it is the least common type of meningeal bleeding and is seen in 1% to 3% cases of head injury .
- Patients have a loss of consciousness (LOC), then a lucid interval, then sudden deterioration (vomiting, restlessness, LOC)
- Head CT shows lenticular (convex) deformity.
- Subdural hemorrhage results from tearing of the bridging veins in the subdural space between the dura and arachnoid mater.
- Head CT shows crescent-shaped deformity
- Subarachnoid hemorrhage, which occur between the arachnoid and pia meningeal layers, like intraparenchymal hemorrhage, can result either from trauma or from ruptures of aneurysms or arteriovenous malformations. Blood is seen layering into the brain along sulci and fissures, or filling cisterns (most often the suprasellar cistern because of the presence of the vessels of the circle of Willis and their branchpoints within that space). The classic presentation of subarachnoid hemorrhage is the sudden onset of a severe headache (a thunderclap headache). This can be a very dangerous entity, and requires emergent neurosurgical evaluation, and sometimes urgent intervention.
Classification | Intracranial bleeding | Cerebral contusion
Cerebral contusion is bruising of the brain tissue. The majority of contusions occur in the frontal and temporal lobes. Complications may include cerebral edema and transtentorial herniation. The goal of treatment should be to treat the increased intracranial pressure. The prognosis is guarded.
Classification | Intracranial bleeding | Diffuse axonal injury
Diffuse axonal injury, or DAI, usually occurs as the result of an acceleration or deceleration motion, not necessarily an impact. Axons are stretched and damaged when parts of the brain of differing density slide over one another. Prognoses vary widely depending on the extent of damage.
Signs and symptoms
Presentation varies according to the injury. Some patients with head trauma stabilize and other patients deteriorate. A patient may present with or without neurological deficit. Patients with concussion may have a history of seconds to minutes unconsciousness, then normal arousal. Disturbance of vision and equilibrium may also occur. Common symptoms of head injury include coma, confusion, drowsiness, personality change, seizures, nausea and vomiting, headache and a lucid interval, during which a patient appears conscious only to deteriorate later.
Symptoms of skull fracture can include:
- leaking cerebrospinal fluid (a clear fluid drainage from nose, mouth or ear) may be and is strongly indicative of basilar skull fracture and the tearing of sheaths surrounding the brain, which can lead to secondary brain infection.
- visible deformity or depression in the head or face; for example a sunken eye can indicate a maxillar fracture
- an eye that cannot move or is deviated to one side can indicate that a broken facial bone is pinching a nerve that innervates eye muscles
- wounds or bruises on the scalp or face.
- Basilar skull fractures, those that occur at the base of the skull, are associated with Battle's sign, a subcutaneous bleed over the mastoid, hemotympanum, and cerebrospinal fluid rhinorrhea and otorrhea.
Because brain injuries can be life-threatening, even people with apparently slight injuries, with no noticeable signs or complaints, require close observation; They have a chance for severe symptoms later on. The caretakers of those patients with mild trauma who are released from the hospital are frequently advised to rouse the patient several times during the next 12 to 24 hours to assess for worsening symptoms.
The Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) is a tool for measuring degree of unconsciousness and is thus a useful tool for determining severity of injury. The Pediatric Glasgow Coma Scale is used in young children. The widely used PECARN Pediatric Head Injury/Trauma Algorithm helps physicians weigh risk-benefit of imaging in a clinical setting given multiple factors about the patient—including mechanism/location of injury, age of patient, and GCS score.
Common causes of head injury are motor vehicle traffic collisions, home and occupational accidents, falls, and assaults. Wilson's disease has also been indicative of head injury. According to the United States CDC, 32% of traumatic brain injuries (another, more specific, term for head injuries) are caused by falls, 10% by assaults, 16.5% by being struck or against something, 17% by motor vehicle accidents, 21% by other/unknown ways. In addition, the highest rate of injury is among children ages 0–14 and adults age 65 and older.
The need for imaging in patients who have suffered a minor head injury is debated. A non-contrast CT of the head should be performed immediately in all those who have suffered a moderate or severe head injury, an MRI is also an option. Computed tomography (CT) has become the diagnostic modality of choice for head trauma due to its accuracy, reliability, safety, and wide availability. The changes in microcirculation, impaired auto-regulation, cerebral edema, and axonal injury start as soon as head injury occurs and manifest as clinical, biochemical, and radiological changes.
Most head injuries are of a benign nature and require no treatment beyond analgesics and close monitoring for potential complications such as intracranial bleeding. If the brain has been severely damaged by trauma, neurosurgical evaluation may be useful. Treatments may involve controlling elevated intracranial pressure. This can include sedation, paralytics, cerebrospinal fluid diversion. Second line alternatives include decompressive craniectomy (Jagannathan et al. found a net 65% favorable outcomes rate in pediatric patients), barbiturate coma, hypertonic saline and hypothermia. Although all of these methods have potential benefits, there has been no randomized study that has shown unequivocal benefit.
Clinicians will often consult clinical decision support rules such as the Canadian CT Head Rule or the New Orleans/Charity Head injury/Trauma Rule to decide if the patient needs further imaging studies or observation only. Rules like these are usually studied in depth by multiple research groups with large patient cohorts to ensure accuracy given the risk of adverse events in this area.
In children with uncomplicated minor head injuries the risk of intra cranial bleeding over the next year is rare at 2 cases per 1 million. In some cases transient neurological disturbances may occur, lasting minutes to hours. Malignant post traumatic cerebral swelling can develop unexpectedly in stable patients after an injury, as can post traumatic seizures. Recovery in children with neurologic deficits will vary. Children with neurologic deficits who improve daily are more likely to recover, while those who are vegetative for months are less likely to improve. Most patients without deficits have full recovery. However, persons who sustain head trauma resulting in unconsciousness for an hour or more have twice the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease later in life.
Head injury may be associated with a neck injury. Bruises on the back or neck, neck pain, or pain radiating to the arms are signs of cervical spine injury and merit spinal immobilization via application of a cervical collar and possibly a long board.If the neurological exam is normal this is reassuring. Reassessment is needed if there is a worsening headache, seizure, one sided weakness, or has persistent vomiting.
To combat overuse of Head CT Scans yielding negative intracranial hemorrhage, which unnecessarily expose patients to radiation and increase time in the hospital and cost of the visit, multiple clinical decision support rules have been developed to help clinicians weigh the option to scan a patient with a head injury. Among these are the Canadian Head CT rule, the PECARN Head Injury/Trauma Algorithm, and the New Orleans/Charity Head Injury/Trauma Rule all help clinicians make these decisions using easily obtained information and noninvasive practices.