Everyone is at risk for a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and approximately 1.7 million Americans sustain them each year, 85,000 of them ending up with long-term disabilities. They are not limited to sports injuries. Head injuries can occur just about anywhere and anytime, like in car accidents or even banging a head on an open freezer door. Much like other physical injuries, brain injuries can range anywhere from mild to acute. The difference between TBIs and other injuries is that TBIs can directly influence mental health. When a person already has a mental illness like bipolar disorder, adding a traumatic brain injury can be complicated.

What is a traumatic brain injury?TBIs are caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury. Penetrating head injuries occur when an object goes through the skull and into the brain. When these injuries cause disfunction in the brain, it is considered a TBI. There may not be any outward signs of a brain injury.

Concussions are the most common causes of TBI and are usually mild. They are caused by a blow to the head or body, a fall or any other injury that causes the brain to shake inside the skull or jar the brain against the inside of the skull.

Symptoms of TBI depend on the severity of the injury. There are many different symptoms of TBI, which may include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Dizziness
  • Sensory problems
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with cognitive function
  • Irritability
  • Agression
  • Depression
  • Disinhibition
  • Coma

Can a traumatic brain injury cause bipolar disorder?Head injuries have been shown to increase the likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental illness by up to 439%. Most people will develop symptoms of mental illness within a year of the injury, but there is still an increased risk for up to 15 years.

In a study from 2014, researchers found that people with a TBI were 28 times more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This was especially true when the head trauma occurred between the ages of 11 and 15. It is hypothesized that TBI causes inflammation in the brain, which can trigger problems with mental health.

So, it is likely that TBI can cause mental illness, but its relationship to bipolar disorder may be correlational, but not necessarily causal.

Can traumatic brain injury worsen bipolar disorder?TBI affects the brain in general. How it affects the brain is determined by what type of damage the brain sustained, the severity of the damage and where the damage occurred. For example, if the injury is sustained in the back part of the brain (the occipital lobe), symptoms may include problems with vision, difficulty identifying objects, problems with recognizing movement and difficulties reading and writing. These are not generally issues seen in bipolar disorder.

However, when damage is done to the front part of the brain (the frontal lobe) there can be problems with perseveration, problems with attention and changes in mood and social behavior. All of these problems can be found in bipolar disorder. So, depending on the injury, it may seem as though symptoms of bipolar disorder are intensified, but they are still two separate problems. TBIs, especially mild ones, may heal in time while bipolar disorder can only be managed.

If you have experienced a traumatic brain injury recently, make sure to stay in touch with your medical team to make sure all symptoms are monitored. Also tell your psychiatrist and mental health team if you have ever experienced a TBI.

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Image credit:Jose Navarro