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Traumatic brain injury in young adults: what’s different and what can be done?

Marissa Russell, MS, CCC-SLP | Traumatic brain injury

What do falls, motor vehicle accidents, and sports injuries have in common? Each of these incidents is a leading cause of traumatic brain injuries (TBI), or changes in brain functioning that are caused by a blow to the head. 

There are 27 million new cases of TBI worldwide. While many people experience TBIs, some groups are at greater risk than others – for example, young adults – especially those between the ages of 15 and 24. Compared to older adults, young adults face unique challenges after a TBI. In honor of Brain Injury Awareness Month this March, this article explores how TBIs affect everyday abilities in young adults and provides resources that may be particularly useful for young survivors.

What abilities in young adults can be impacted by a traumatic brain injury?

A TBI can lead to difficulties in a range of areas, such as: 

  • Cognitive skills – trouble paying attention, remembering, learning new information, organizing, planning, and problem solving
  • Language skills – trouble using and understanding language
  • Speaking skills – trouble moving the mouth and tongue to produce sounds 
  • Social skills – trouble reading nonverbal cues (e.g., facial expressions and change of tone), trouble following conversational etiquette (e.g., turn-taking)
  • Behavior – impaired judgment, reduced inhibition 
  • Regulation of emotions – mood swings or lack of emotion
  • Swallowing – trouble chewing, coughing, or choking when eating/drinking
  • Voice – changes in vocal quality or volume
  • Physical ability – trouble with balance and movement

These challenges can leave young adults in an especially vulnerable position after a TBI. During young adulthood, many individuals begin to make important decisions surrounding education, employment, lifestyle, relationships, and personal identity. While sustaining a TBI can alter this life trajectory, there are many tools available that can aid in the recovery process. 

What can young adults do to help their recovery after traumatic brain injury?

It can be beneficial to take advantage of the variety of treatment options that address the challenges young adults face after a TBI. Combining different approaches can help improve daily functioning and overall quality of life for those affected. Consider the following resources when planning the next steps post-injury:

  • Rehab Therapy – Your rehab team may include a speech-language pathologist (SLP), occupational therapist (OT), and/or physical therapist (PT). These specialists can help improve the impairments described above through therapy sessions and home exercise programs, like Constant Therapy.
  • Intensive Programs – Programs have been created to help support the higher-level cognitive, social, and language skills required to resume home, work, and community-based activities after a TBI. Search for community re-entry programs available in your area. These programs can be especially useful for young adults as they learn to navigate the new responsibilities and changes that accompany adulthood. For example, Boston University’s Intensive Cognitive-Communication Rehabilitation (ICCR) Program is geared towards helping young adults post-brain injury enter or re-enter college (this program is now offered virtually, so you do not have to live in Boston to participate!).
  • Support Groups – Not only do these groups create an understanding network of people with similar experiences, but they provide opportunities for sharing knowledge, guidance, and practicing skills (e.g., cognitive and social strategies) in a safe environment.  Search for support groups in your area and see if they are a good fit for you. Some TBI support groups are even created for young adults specifically, providing opportunities to meet peers in the same stage of life.  =
  • Counseling – Anxiety, depression, stress, and other forms of emotional adjustment are extremely common after a TBI. This can be a result of both chemical changes in the brain as well as trauma associated with the experience of a major medical event. Left untreated, these mental health changes can impact progress in rehabilitation and quality of life. Consider pairing counseling with other treatment tools to help support maximal recovery. =
  • Other tools – Because young adults are often well-versed in technology, utilizing digital therapy tools can provide an additional way to support progress. Constant Therapy provides exercises via smartphone or tablet that can help improve certain difficulties experienced after a TBI, such as trouble with attention and memory. Ask your speech-language pathologist if this could be a useful tool for you. 

Navigating life after a TBI can be overwhelming–particularly during the young adult years. The good news is that the brain is often capable of healing and compensating for damage during recovery. Understanding what resources are available is an important part of the rehabilitation process. For more information, check out the following websites:

Further Resources:

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