Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) & Alcohol: Should TBI Patients Stop Drinking Alcohol?December 19, 2017
About 30 to 50 percent of TBI patients were intoxicated when they sustained their traumatic brain injury, and as many as 75 percent of TBI patients have a history of risky alcohol use.1 While drinking alcohol is clearly associated with risk factors for TBIs, it can also have significant impacts on TBI patients’ prognoses and recoveries.
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Risks of Alcohol Use for TBI Patients
While excessive alcohol use can have negative impacts on anyone, these impacts can be far more detrimental to those who are living with and recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Specifically, drinking alcohol in the aftermath of a TBI can result in complications like (but not necessarily limited to):
- Prolonged or limited recovery –TBI patients’ brains are more sensitive to alcohol. When those with TBIs consume alcohol, they can experience neuroinflammation, which can persist for days, possibly even weeks, after drinking alcohol. Such swelling in a damaged brain can delay or completely halt TBI recoveries.
- Re-injury – On average, a TBI patient has a 3 to 8 times greater risk (than those without a TBI) of sustaining a subsequent brain injury. For TBI patients who consume alcohol, this risk increases substantially, as alcohol impairs balance, perception, judgment and coordination.
- Amplified cognitive problems – Alcohol use for TBI patients can also intensify the cognitive issues they experience due to their brain injury. In particular, this can mean more serious and/or persisting memory problems, as well as impaired cognitive flexibility (i.e., problems thinking about things in new ways).
- Epilepsy – While TBI patients can be susceptible to seizures as a result of their brain injury, alcohol consumption can further lower the threshold for seizures, increasing the risk of epilepsy.
- Depression – TBI patients are approximately 8 times more likely (than those without a TBI) to develop depression, especially within the first year of injury. Drinking alcohol, which is a depressant, can intensify and prolong the depression associated with TBIs. It can also impede the efficacy of any drugs a TBI patient may be taking to treat depression.
- Sexual complications – TBI patients who consume alcohol tend to experience less desire, decreased production of sexual hormones, performance issues and diminished sexual satisfaction.
Alcohol Use for TBI Patients: The Recommendations
Clearly, drinking alcohol can have significant negative impacts of TBI patients’ overall recoveries – and that can impact their quality of life, possibly for the rest of their life. Consequently, medical professionals recommend that TBI patients:
- Do NOT consume alcohol if they are taking prescription medications, especially pain or depression medications.
- Avoid alcohol consumption during, at least, the first few months of recovery and until they know how alcohol use may impact them.
- Seek alcohol treatment and support if stopping alcohol consumption may be problematic.
- Develop strategies for reducing the potential harms of alcohol use if patients want to continue drinking socially.
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1: According to statistics from the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center (MSKTC)