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Does Traumatic Brain Injury Increase Risk of Substance Abuse?

More than 1.4 million people in the United States sustain a diagnosable traumatic brain injury each year.1 Many of these TBI victims will develop substance use disorders at some point during the progression of their condition, while some may have been injured due to their drug or alcohol abuse in the first place.

What Is a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)?

A traumatic brain injury is a form of brain damage caused by trauma to the head. Some types of brain injury may be mild, and the effects may only be experienced for a little while. More severe injuries could lead to long-term brain damage, eventually resulting in serious complications or possibly death.

Most serious TBIs aren’t treatable, and your only option will be to manage them with medication and therapy.

What Could Cause a TBI?

TBIs are usually caused by hitting your head against something or being hit on the head hard enough to cause damage to your brain cells.

Some of the most common accidents causing TBIs include:

  • Vehicle crashes: Whiplash and hitting your head against a car seat, steering wheel, or window during an accident is one of the most apparent causes of TBIs.
  • Falling: It doesn’t have to be a high fall. Even just bumping your head after tripping could cause a TBI.
  • Violence: Any sort of blow to the head from a punch, kick, or someone using something to hit you could result in a TBI.
  • Contact sports: Disciplines like football, rugby, boxing, and MMA produce the most TBI patients.
  • Combat: TBIs are especially prevalent in soldiers and veterans who have been exposed to bomb blasts or hit in the head by shrapnel.

Many people who suffer a TBI don’t realize it, and most of the injuries go untreated. TBIs can produce many confusing, uncomfortable symptoms if left untreated or unmanaged.

What Are the Symptoms of a TBI?

Initial symptoms of a TBI may include headaches, loss of consciousness, a concussion, and extreme confusion.

TBIs can also have a powerful effect on your body and mind on a long-term basis, producing2:

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Memory loss
  • Concentration problems
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Light and sound sensitivity

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Aggression

Physical Symptoms

  • Seizures
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numb extremities
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • One or both pupils dilated

Who Suffers TBIs Most Often?

Participating in contact sports, working in active combat zones, or having a history of substance abuse can each be a risk factor for developing a TBI.

However, substance abuse has been tied in with TBIs more than any other behavioral precursor. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, people often lack coordination and have lowered inhibitions.

Accidents due to driving under the influence are among the leading causes of TBIs in people who abused drugs and alcohol before their injury.

TBIs and Addiction

Although more than 60% of TBI patients have a history of alcohol and drug addiction, substance abuse after the initial injury is even more common.3

People with TBIs are at a greater risk of misusing narcotics and alcohol for a range of reasons, including:

  • Trying to self-medicate their TBI-induced chronic pain or mental health conditions.
  • Escaping from the reality of their diagnosis, especially if the TBI is severe.
  • Trying to deal with the trauma produced by their injury, especially if it was caused during combat.

Using drugs or alcohol for any of the abovementioned TBI-related reasons could quickly result in your body developing tolerance for and dependence on your substance of choice. It can be challenging for TBI patients to go through withdrawal once they are addicted, as withdrawal symptoms can worsen the effects of their TBI.

Substances Most Often Abused by People With TBIs

The two most commonly abused substances among TBI patients are opioids and alcohol.

Opioids can help manage their pain and, if taken at high enough doses, produce feelings of relaxation and euphoria, which may counter the symptoms of anxiety and depression produced by their injury.

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that can relieve feelings of fear and stress.

Alcohol is also the substance most commonly abused before getting injured and, although most patients will quit for several months after their TBI diagnosis, many eventually start using alcohol again, sometimes far more excessively than they did before.

Getting Help For TBI-Related Addiction

Finding TBI-related substance abuse treatment can be challenging. Most treatment facilities aren’t equipped to aid substance recovery alongside the cognitive and behavioral effects of TBIs.

Often drugs and alcohol can worsen the effects of a TBI, so long-term health care is required for both the addiction and the injury.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Addiction Treatment Programs

The best treatment option for a person suffering from both a TBI and a substance use disorder is a residential inpatient treatment program. Inpatient treatment can ensure your withdrawal symptoms don’t negatively impact your TBI.

Close medical supervision during your recovery program can also leave you with less time feeling alone, depressed, or anxious, especially if the treatment center offers focused support groups for athletes or individuals with co-occurring mental disorders.

If you or someone you love suffers from addiction and are trying to find treatment, get in touch with our team at (949) 427-9099 to get the help you need.


  1. https://misuse.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/error/abuse.shtml
  2. https://www.brainline.org/article/5-things-you-should-know-about-substance-use-after-brain-injury
  3. https://www.niznikhealth.com/blog/traumatic-brain-injury-and-addiction/

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