Brain Injury Linked to Lasting Sleep Problems

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Traumatic brain injury is connected with a wide variety of symptoms and consequences. A new study adds one to the list: sleep problems lasting months, or even years. And it will be up to family, friends, and doctors to notice the difference.

Whether a traumatic brain injury is the result of an auto accident, fall, or sports injury, its consequences can change your life. Symptoms of a serious TBI can include anything from dizziness to cognitive challenges, physical coordination to loss of speech. Now a study has found that even a minor concussion can have lasting effects on the way a person sleeps.

Researchers from University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland followed 73 people – 31 with traumatic brain injuries and 42 without – over 18 months. Participants provided self-reports of the number of hours they slept and their levels of daytime sleepiness. In addition, they participated in two different kinds of sleep studies. They wore a device on their wrists for 2 weeks that measures body movement and spent a night in a sleep video lab. That sleep study measured brain activity, eye movements, muscle activity, and heart rhythm to evaluate the length and quality of sleep. Participants also took part in a test regarding daytime sleepiness.

All those tests put together showed that 67% of TBI patients experienced excessive daytime sleepiness, compared to 19% of healthy test participants. Study author Dr. Lukas Imbach said:

“This is the longest prospective and most comprehensive study about sleep quality and TBI to date. . . . We found that the majority of those with TBI, no matter how severe, had long-term sleep disturbances, yet didn’t know.”

Even though 2/3 of TBI victims had sleep problems, they didn’t report feeling any sleepier on self-reports. In other words, head injury patients were unable to detect their own sleep challenges. That’s a problem.

Sleep problems can seriously impair a TBI victim’s ability to live a normal life. In addition to challenges keeping appointments and maintaining a job, it can also create threats to public safety. Imbach said:

“Excessive daytime sleepiness is associated with public safety hazards such as car accidents, so people with TBI and their doctors should be monitoring for this problem. . . . The study also shows us that people with TBI may not be able to accurately assess their own sleep problems. Since this is how the sleep quality of many people with TBI is assessed, this may be a concern.”

It’s up to the people around TBI victims to watch for sleep problems. Family, friends, and doctors should be watching for signs of daytime sleepiness, increased sleep per night, and other sleep-wake disturbances. Without careful supervision, patients with even minor concussions could be putting themselves and those around them at risk.

David Christensen is a brain injury expert at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He helps TBI patients get their treatments covered after an auto accident. If you or a loved one suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of a car crash, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.