Monday Medical: Retraining the brain after an injury |

Monday Medical: Retraining the brain after an injury

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Today


It might happen in a hard fall on the ski slopes, a tough tackle on the football field or a car accident. Whatever the cause, a traumatic brain injury can be challenging.

About 1.4 million Americans suffer from a TBI every year. Whether someone has a mild concussion or a more serious injury, it's critical to get treatment quickly. While physical therapy is one important treatment for a TBI, speech and occupational therapies can also play a key role in recovery.

Traumatic Brain Injury basics

A TBI happens when the head is severely hit or shaken, causing the brain to rapidly accelerate or decelerate within the skull. The injury can cause swelling, temporary dysfunction of brain cells or more serious damage to the brain. The skull can be penetrated or remain intact.

Most TBIs are mild — but even mild brain injuries can require treatment.

Recommended Stories For You

"That's a big target population that may sometimes get overlooked," said Megan Marion, an occupational therapist at SportsMed at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Symptoms of a mild TBI or concussion are varied and may include:

• Cognitive: loss of concentration, confusion, a feeling of fogginess

• Physical: difficulty balancing and moving, headaches, nausea, fatigue, sensitivity to light or noise

• Mood: irritable, sad, anxious

• Sleep: sleeping more or less than usual, difficulty falling asleep

A more severe TBI can result in additional symptoms.

The first step after experiencing any TBI is to be seen and diagnosed by a physician, who can then prescribe the best therapies.

Benefits of Speech Therapy

People may expect to feel slightly fuzzy or foggy a few days after a TBI, but many don't realize those feelings can last much longer, said Elisabeth Boersma, speech language pathologist at SportsMed.

Patients may be end up struggling with a range of cognitive symptoms, from making decisions to remembering appointments. For those challenges, speech therapy — which addresses cognitive function in addition to speech — can help.

TBI patients are evaluated, then formal goals are made in various areas, such as memory, scheduling and word finding.

"Sometimes, people don't even realize that they have deficits in certain areas," Boersma said. "We're able to give them a clearer picture of what cognitive domain is having difficulty."

Treatment varies depending upon the person and his or her goals: A goal may be to return to work as quickly as possible or to continue a hobby, such as gardening.

"We try to make it as functional as possible," Boersma said.

The benefits of speech therapy are significant.

"It gets them back to work faster and helps them have a quicker recovery," Boersma said.

Benefits of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy helps people regain performance in both their professional work and their everyday activities. Individualized treatment plans are created to be challenging without being overly frustrating, Marion said.

Like speech therapy, occupational therapy covers a variety of areas, such as short- and long-term memory, planning skills and stress management. For instance, a patient might practice ordering at a coffee shop or listing the steps for cooking a meal.

All the activities serve as exercise for the brain, retraining it so it can accomplish activities it was accustomed to before the injury.

For any TBI, it's best to act quickly. Patients should try to manage symptoms "before it gets to a place where it's unmanageable, where their life routines are changed … and it gets overwhelming," Marion said. "We have a great role in prevention of long-term effects."

Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

Concussion testing available:

Baseline concussion testing is available at SportsMed at Yampa Valley Medical Center. For individual and group testing or for more information, call 970-871-2370.