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Common Causes of Brain Injury and How Research Is Helping Detect and Treat TBI

Discover the most common causes of traumatic brain injury and how research is making a difference in diagnosing and treating concussions.


While recent coverage of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) has focused primarily on concussions in sports, brain injuries do not only affect athletes. The reality is that brain injuries can happen to anyone in the course of daily life. The most common causes of brain injuries include falls, assaults, and car accidents—and being aware of the causes and signs of a TBI may help prevent injuries or long-term complications.

Research on the causes and symptoms of TBI is vital to being able to better diagnose and treat these types of injuries. Learn about the most common causes of brain injury, how a TBI affects the brain, and how current research efforts are improving treatment and recovery.

The Effects of Traumatic Brain Injury

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) occurs when the brain experiences sudden trauma or damage, typically from a blow to the head or violent jolt, or from an object that pierces the skull. 

What happens during and after a brain injury? In the case of a traumatic impact, the sudden, jarring movement can cause nerve fibers to tear as the brain shifts position and makes contact with bones on the inside of the skull. This impact can lead to bleeding, tearing, inflammation, and brain swelling.

Symptoms of a TBI may range from mild to severe, depending on the location and extent of the damage, including:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Lightheadedness
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Personality changes or odd behavior
  • Memory problems and difficulty concentrating 

In the case of a moderate or severe TBI, a person may experience nausea and vomiting, a headache that doesn’t go away, seizures, extreme sleepiness, difficulty speaking, loss of coordination, confusion, weakness, and pupil dilation. 

A TBI can also lead to long-term health issues if left untreated. Because all parts of the brain are connected, a brain injury may increase the risk of developing brain diseases like epilepsy or neurodegenerative diseases. Additionally, repeated head injuries appear to contribute to the formation of a neurodegenerative disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Researchers are currently investigating the link between CTE and TBI.

Common Causes of Brain Injury

Brain injuries can happen to people of all ages and in many different circumstances. The most common causes of traumatic brain injury are falls, motor vehicle crashes, firearm-related incidents, and physical assaults. 

  • Falls are the most common cause of TBIs and occur most frequently among the youngest and oldest age groups. Falls lead to nearly half of all TBI-related hospitalizations
  • Car accidents are the third most common cause of TBI. These may include pedestrian-involved accidents, multiple-car crashes, and bike accidents.
  • Firearms are a major cause of traumatic head injuries, as in the case of a gunshot wound to the head. Firearm-related suicide is the most common cause of TBI-related death in the U.S.
  • Physical assaults, including intimate partner violence and shaken baby syndrome, are common but often overlooked causes of traumatic brain injuries. TBI-related deaths in children age 4 and younger are most likely to be the result of assault. Studies also show that over 75% of domestic violence survivors suffer single or repeated traumatic brain injuries, most of which go unreported. 

Women are often underrepresented in TBI studies, but researchers are currently working to better understand the long-term impact of domestic violence on TBI. Through education and continued research, we will gain a more accurate understanding of the full scope and impact of traumatic brain injuries and learn how to better diagnose and prevent TBI.

Current Research on Traumatic Brain Injury

Ongoing research on traumatic brain injury continues to help us learn how the brain heals from various types of damage. Because early treatment is critical in the case of TBI, most current research is focused on identifying the signs of an injury and preventing long-term damage. Additionally, some studies are exploring the long-term effects of TBI so we can better understand the different symptoms associated with brain injuries, such as headache, dizziness, cognitive issues, and mood disorders.

Next Generation Research Grant Study on TBI Complications

The American Brain Foundation has funded numerous studies on the long-term impact of TBI on brain health and the links between TBI and CTE. For example, Holly Hinson, MD, MCR, FAAN, received an American Brain Foundation-funded Next Generation Research Grant in 2012 to investigate a then-unnamed syndrome that often develops in the ER following a TBI. Dr. Hinson’s study found that people who develop a fever shortly after experiencing a brain injury—specifically in the first 48 hours after a concussion—were at higher risk for developing paroxysmal sympathetic hyperactivity (also called sympathetic storming). 

Dr. Hinson’s work has expanded to study a range of factors that help doctors predict how a person may recover from a brain injury, enabling more effective post-concussion monitoring and treatment.

Advancements in Diagnosis, Recovery, and Post-TBI Care

Recent advancements in research have improved our ability to detect brain injuries and have expanded treatment options to reduce long-term complications. These methods—including eye-tracking technology using portable virtual reality, brain imaging, and biomarkers—provide more standardized ways for doctors to identify and treat TBI.

Research has also contributed to advancements in TBI treatment and has sparked a change in attitudes about how to best care for someone who has experienced a concussion. For example, research led to a more complex understanding of how exercise can reduce prolonged symptoms and speed recovery from brain trauma. This resulted in the development of the Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test (BCTT), which has become the standard of care for treating a concussion.

Connections Between TBI and Other Brain Diseases

Some recent studies have focused on the underlying causes, signs, and risk factors of post-traumatic epilepsy to better understand links between TBI and epilepsy. If researchers could identify when people who experience a brain injury are more likely to develop a linked condition such as epilepsy, it would open the door to earlier and more effective treatment.

Because all parts of the brain are interconnected, brain health impacts a wide range of cognitive and motor functions and can be a factor in the development of a number of diseases. Knowing how to prevent, identify, and treat a brain injury is an important part of maintaining brain health, and research in this area helps us better understand how to keep our brains safe and healthy.

The American Brain Foundation knows that when we find the cure to one brain disease, we will find cures to many others. Learn more about the brain disease research we fund, or donate today to support the cures and treatments of tomorrow.