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Traumatic brain injury as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is “a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.” TBI can affect one’s physical, neurological, and/ or emotional functioning. The symptoms that manifest because of a TBI will vary significantly, as they depend on the type of injury, the severity of the injury, as well as the area of the brain that was injured. For some, a TBI may only affect the exact location on the brain where the injury occurred, while for others a TBI could also affect surrounding tissues and cause damage to one’s brain in other areas apart from the initial site. According to Physiopedia, “There is a reciprocal relationship between lung function and brain function: the brain needs sufficient oxygen supply in order to operate, and the respiratory system needs instructions from the brain in order to operate.” Therefore, it should come as no surprise that respiratory dysfunction is known as among the most common TBI-related medical complication that occurs. 

Types of TBI Breathing Problems

There are several types of TBI respiratory problems that a person may experience after sustaining a brain injury. The most common types of respiratory dysfunction include the following: 

  • Apneustic Breathing: Apneustic breathing is an abnormal breathing pattern that refers to problems with exhaling air. When a person has apneustic breathing, they take deep breaths in but do not completely exhale. Eventually, this condition generates high amounts of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, which can lead to dizziness, headaches, loss of consciousness, or even seizures.
  • Irregular Respiratory Rate: If the medulla (area of the brain that regulates cardiovascular and respiratory systems) becomes damaged, this will cause it to have trouble detecting carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. This is associated with two main respiratory rate problems after TBI:
    • Quick, shallow breaths.
    • Slow, infrequent breaths.

Both upset the balance of COand oxygen in the body and can cause life-threatening complications.

  • Apnea: Apnea refers to a complete stop of a person’s breathing rate. It can occur following a brain injury that compresses the medulla. The most common form of apnea is sleep apnea which occurs when the person is asleep. Apnea can lead to hypoxia and further brain damage if it lasts too long. 
  • Agonal Breathing: Agonal breathing describes a person in respiratory distress that is not getting enough oxygen to their brain. Signs of agonal breathing include:
    • Gasping
    • Snorting
    • Moaning
    • Labored breathing

Agonal breathing can sometimes last several hours, but without medical intervention, it can lead to serious brain damage and in severe cases, death. Agonal breathing often gets confused with Dyspnea, but they are two distinct conditions. 

  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath): Dyspnea, according to the Mayo Clinic “is often described as an intense tightening in the chest, air hunger, difficulty breathing, breathlessness or a feeling of suffocation.” It occurs when there is damage to the intercostal nerves.  

For Information and Support 

If you are concerned for yourself or a loved one regarding substance abuse and/ or addiction, we recommend reaching out for help as soon as possible. If left untreated, substance abuse can result in long lasting and potentially life-threatening consequences. Keep in mind: you are not alone! There is an entire network of professionals that are available to help and support you and your loved one throughout the recovery process. The earlier you seek support, the sooner your loved one can return to a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.

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