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 30% of 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, and some people try to ease their problems with alcohol or drugs. This is very dangerous because a TBI may make your brain more susceptible to the effects of alcohol and drugs.  

The dangers of misusing alcohol or drugs after a TBI

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

  • Slower recovery

  • Worsening of TBI symptoms

  • 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 have had a substance abuse problem in the past actually stop using drugs and alcohol after a TBI because they understand the dangers. Here are important steps to take:

  • Be honest with your healthcare team. Let them know if you are 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. Get your friends and family involved in your recovery.

  • Join a support group. Ask your health care 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.

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