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Substance Abuse and Traumatic Brain Injury

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a shock or blow to your head that changes the way your brain works. A TBI can change the way you think, feel, and act. Substance abuse is using a substance, like alcohol or a drug, in an uncontrolled way that hurts you or those around you. Many people with a TBI also have problems with substance abuse.

Substance abuse can lead to a TBI. Studies show that at least 3 in 10 people hospitalized for a TBI have a history of substance abuse. This relationship can work in the opposite way, as well. Having a TBI can lead to substance abuse, even if you haven’t had a problem with substance abuse in the past. Alcohol is the most common type of substance abuse problem seen in people with a TBI. 

Why substance abuse leads to TBI

Just like a TBI, substance abuse changes the way you think, act, and feel. Being intoxicated affects your vision, coordination, and judgment. This can lead to risky behavior and poor decisions that cause TBI accidents and injuries.

Why TBI leads to substance abuse

Symptoms of a TBI include slowed thinking, mood swings, depression, anxiety, and headaches. Living with these symptoms can be very frustrating. Some people try to ease their problems with alcohol or drugs. This is very dangerous. A TBI may make your brain more easily affected by alcohol and drugs.  

The dangers of misusing alcohol or drugs after a TBI

If you've been diagnosed with a TBI, you need to know how dangerous it is to try to ease your symptoms with alcohol or drugs. Mixing a TBI with misuse of alcohol or drugs raises your risk for:

  • Slower recovery

  • TBI symptoms getting worse

  • Making bad decisions

  • Having another TBI

  • Seizures

  • Family and job problems

  • Suicide

What to do

Knowing the dangers of substance abuse after TBI is the first step. Many people who've had a substance abuse problem in the past actually stop using drugs and alcohol after a TBI because they understand the dangers. Here are key steps to take:

  • Be honest with your healthcare team. Let them know if you're having problems with alcohol or drugs.

  • Stick with your treatment program. People in supervised treatment are less likely to have substance abuse problems.

  • Don’t spend too much time alone. Have friends and family take part in your recovery.

  • Join a support group. Ask your healthcare provider if you need help finding one.

  • Don’t get discouraged. Knowing that the symptoms of TBI usually go away in time will help you have a successful recovery.

It may be tempting to ease the symptoms and frustration of recovering from a TBI by drinking alcohol or taking drugs. But this only makes things worse. Be patient with your brain. It takes time to heal. Remember that most people do recover.

Online Medical Reviewer: Anne Fetterman RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Joseph Campellone MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2021
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