At the Scene of the Accident: Medical care usually begins when paramedics or emergency medical technicians arrive on the scene of an accident or when a TBI patient arrives at the emergency department of a hospital. Because little can be done to reverse the initial brain damage caused by trauma, medical personnel try to stabilize the patient and focus on preventing further injury. Primary concerns include insuring proper oxygen supply, maintaining adequate blood flow, and controlling blood pressure. Since many head-injured patients may also have spinal cord injuries, the patient is placed on a back-board and in a neck restraint to prevent further injury to the head and spinal cord.
Medical personnel assess the patient’s condition by measuring vital signs and reflexes and by performing a neurological examination. They check the patient’s temperature, blood pressure, pulse, breathing rate, and pupil size and response to light. They assess the patient’s level of consciousness and neurological functioning using the Glasgow Coma Scale.
At the Hospital: Imaging tests help in determining the diagnosis and prognosis of a TBI patient. Patients with mild to moderate injuries may receive skull and neck X-rays to check for bone fractures. For moderate to severe cases, the gold standard imaging test is a computed tomography (CT) scan, which creates a series of crosssectional X-ray images of the head and brain and can show bone fractures as well as the presence of hemorrhage, hematomas, contusions, brain tissue swelling, and tumors. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used after the initial assessment and treatment of the TBI patient. MRI uses magnetic fields to detect subtle changes in brain tissue content and can show more detail than X-rays or CT. The use of CT and MRI is standard in TBI treatment, but other imaging and diagnostic techniques that may be used to confirm a particular diagnosis include cerebral angiography, electroencephalography (EEG), transcranial Doppler ultrasound, and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT).
Surgery: Approximately half of severely head-injured patients will need surgery to remove or repair hematomas or contusions. Patients may also need surgery to treat injuries in other parts of the body. These patients usually go to the intensive care unit after surgery.
Draining Fluid: Sometimes when the brain is injured swelling occurs and fluids accumulate within the brain space. It is normal for bodily injuries to cause swelling and disruptions in fluid balance. But when an injury occurs inside the skull-encased brain, there is no place for swollen tissues to expand and no adjoining tissues to absorb excess fluid. This increased pressure is called intracranial pressure (ICP).
Medical personnel measure a patient’s ICP using a probe or catheter. The instrument is inserted through the skull to the subarachnoid level and is connected to a monitor that registers the patient’s ICP. If a patient has high ICP, he or she may undergo a ventriculostomy, a procedure that drains cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the ventricles to bring the pressure down. Drugs that can be used to decrease ICP include mannitol or barbiturates.