What are the symptoms of brainstem damage?

Symptoms of brainstem damage vary, depending on the intensity of the injury, and can range from mild cognitive impairment to coma. Identifying the damage early and providing prompt treatment will significantly improve the chances of a positive outcome. Brainstem damage is most commonly associated with car accidents, but can also be caused by sports injuries and other forms of trauma, such as severe blows to the head. The medical evaluation will include an exam by a neurologist along with imaging studies of the brain.

The brainstem is a very important part of the brain. Although it is not involved in higher level cognitive processes, it does regulate a number of physical processes including heart rate, breathing, and balance. It also receives and distributes sensory information. When the brainstem is injured, these functions are disrupted and people can experience serious complications.

Commonly, brainstem damage causes a loss of consciousness. It can be temporary or more extended. People with severe brain stem damage may go into a coma and persistent vegetative states with a limited chance of waking up again. Other people may be alert and conscious, but could have serious breathing problems, abnormal heart rates, or balance disorders. Milder injuries can lead to a staggering gait and sensory disturbances associated with interruptions in sensory signals.

Symptoms of brain stem damage can include numbness to pain and other sensations, including in the viscera, which can be a serious problem. Patients with internal injuries may not have pain associated with them, depriving clinicians of a key diagnostic cue they could use to quickly identify these injuries. People may also have difficulty speaking and swallowing because the brain stem also controls the cranial nerves used to regulate facial muscle movements.

Brainstem damage is not only associated with physical trauma. Strokes and degenerative diseases can also cause it and the effects can be more subtle in these cases as the onset can be slower. People who begin to develop problems such as having trouble walking or controlling limbs, difficulty speaking, and sensory problems should be evaluated for neurological injuries.

Treatments for brain stem damage may include medications, physical therapy, and supportive care such as mechanical ventilation. Patients may need to use assistive devices to get around after some types of injuries and may benefit from assistance in developing a new method of communication if they have trouble speaking clearly and being understood.

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