Special Topic: Traumatic Brain Injury 

By: Megan Souter, Preventionist

“Approximately one in five American adults have sustained a traumatic brain injury severe enough to result in some loss of consciousness” (Lemsky, 2021) 


“At least one out of five people presenting for treatment of a substance use disorder is also living with the effects of brain injury” (Lemsky, 2021) 

Let’s talk about it… 

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is defined as a change in brain function or structure that results from a mechanical force. Signs of a TBI include any loss of consciousness (or decrease), any loss of memory immediately before or after injury, neurological deficits (weakness, loss of balance, vision disruption, changes in speech or senses, and confusion, disorientation, or slowed thinking. (Lemsky, 2021) 

According to the CDC, “In 2019, nearly 15% of high-school students in America reported one or more sports or recreation-related concussions in the past year”. This is a cause for concern as the brain is not only developing in these students, brain injury can result in long-term headaches and potentially other medical complications. Alarmingly there has been evidence that childhood TBI increases the risk for behavioral health problems and coincides with problematic substance use (Lemsky, 2021). While athletes are at an increased risk for TBI’s other factors that increase a person’s risk include (but are not limited to) those exposed to physical abuse, individuals who are incarcerated, members of the armed forces, and individuals who utilize substances. 

When oxygen is deprived from the brain (for longer than 5 minutes) changes in the chemistry can cause the destruction of neurons. Areas of the brain that utilize the most oxygen such as; the hippocampus (memory) and cerebellum (movement), are the first to show damage. Impacting individuals’ memory, problem-solving, managing emotions, impulse control, and processing information. Recognizably, these are often areas of the brain also impacted by substance use and in combination can have greater implications. (Lemsky, 2021) 

Knowing TBI impacts cognitive and behavioral functions and that individuals who use substances have an increased risk/history of TBI. Providers can adapt the pathway to recovery for individuals by accommodating difficulties with understanding, memory, communication, and social cues. The TBI SUD Tool kit breaks down specific barriers and ways to address them (below).  

Additional community resources included below are TBI support groups, coalitions, and youth prevention resources. We encourage you to continue the conversation and explore these resources (As well as the sources utilized for this blog) 

TBI and SUD Toolkit – https://attcnetwork.org/sites/default/files/2021-11/TBI%20%20SUD%20Toolkit%20FINAL%2011.05.2021.pdf 

Youth Prevention Resources – https://www.naturalhigh.org/for-educators/  

New Jersey TBI Support and Programs-