Anoxic Brain Injury: A primer

Just like the rest of our body, the brain needs oxygen. If a medical condition or event interrupts oxygen levels in the brain for more than a few minutes, brain cells die, which results in permanent anoxic brain injury. This is a serious condition that can cause cognitive problems and significant disabilities.

To do its job, the brain sends electrochemical impulses from one brain cell to the next, like an electrical wire. It also uses chemicals to transport messages within the brain. These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters will regulate body functions, and can influence your behavior. Serotonin and Dopamine are neurotransmitters that regulate moods. Many antidepressant medications attempt to mimic these chemicals in order to help people with mood disorders or depression symptoms. Other neurotransmitters help to increase pleasure, or control pain. Some pain medications attempt to mimic the function of these neurotransmitters for people with chronic pain.

Although there are many ways that the brain can be deprived oxygen, common causes of anoxia include electrical shock, drowning, heart attack, choking, or respiratory injuries that interfere with proper breathing. Typically, someone suffering anoxic injury will lose consciousness, although not always. Symptoms can also progress, and a person may go into a coma. Technically, a person is in a coma when the person appears to be asleep, but cannot be awakened.  In other cases, a person suffering anoxic brain injury might lapse into a persistent vegetative state. This person is not in a coma, but will not be able to respond to any stimulation.

When people come out of these vegetative states, symptoms vary, and depend on the extent of brain tissue loss as result of the oxygen deprivation. Long-term symptoms include memory loss of past events, and the inability to remember new information. Also, people may have trouble with the higher functions of the brain, which are known as "executive functions." Executive functions include things like making good judgments, processing information, and responding to social cues. Sometimes, person suffering this condition may become more impulsive, or may not have the same ability to concentrate on more than one task at a time. Also, people suffering anoxic brain injury may have trouble processing visual information. They may find it difficult to focus and reach for an object, or will find themselves reaching for something, but in the wrong place.

Physical symptoms include ataxia, which is an inability to move with coordination. A person may not be able to walk without wobbling, or may stagger like somebody who has had too much to drink. Other symptoms include persistent muscle spasms, which doctors call "movement disorders." Headaches are also common. Physicians will diagnose this condition with MRI studies. This is a magnetic image of the brain, and is able to see the brain at several different cross-sections or angles. Radiologists now have the ability to view these images on computer screens, and can view detailed images of the brain in order to make this diagnosis.

There is another kind a imaging study called a CT or CAT scan. This study uses x-rays and computer software to create specific images of the inside of the brain. Sometimes, a physician will use an EEG, also known as an electroencephalogram to measure the brain electrical activity. This test is also used to diagnose epilepsy.

Recovering from this injury is a long road, and depends upon the nature and extent of the brain damage, as well as the length of time spent in an unconscious state. In order to treat the condition, physicians will first investigate the cause of the injury in to ensure that there is sufficient oxygen supply to the brain.  Then, physicians focus on getting the brain in the best condition to heal. Sometimes that means steroids to reduce swelling, and other times barbiturates to "quiet" the brain so that it has time to rest and heal.  After this acute phase, many patients work with a team of physicians and other health care providers to rehabilitate the brain. This includes speech, physical, occupational therapy and even recreational therapy.

We have worked with many clients with personal injury, disability or on-the-job injury claims who suffer brain injury and face major life changes and new challenges. If you or a family member have suffered a brain injury, and have questions about your legal options, contact us at 503-325-8600. We work with physicians all the time to help our clients move forward.