May 18, 2022

Brain trauma and seizures: what you need to know

About Epilepsy

Head injuries are a common cause of epilepsy. Learn about brain trauma and seizures in our blog, plus diagnosis and treatment.

Head injuries are one of the leading causes of epilepsy. Thousands of people have brain trauma seizures every year, where a head injury leads to epilepsy. 

Let's learn why brain injuries can cause epilepsy, how head trauma seizures are diagnosed, and ways they can be treated.

Woman speaking to a doctor about her brain injury

What is epilepsy?

Before learning about brain trauma and seizures, it's first useful to understand what epilepsy is.

Epilepsy can be defined as two or more unprovoked epileptic seizures. Normally our brains send electrical signals through a network of millions of cells in a highly controlled way. These brain signals help create our thoughts, process information and make our bodies move.

In people with epilepsy, these electrical signals can suddenly behave in a disorganized way. That can cause them to have seizures. Depending on the kind of epilepsy the person has, it might make them lose consciousness, do repetitive motions, fall over or have strange feelings.

Recommended: Why do people get epilepsy?

Can head trauma cause seizures?

Yes, head trauma is a well-known cause of seizures. Depending on the kind of head trauma a person has suffered, it can damage the brain in different ways. Brain trauma can leave scarring on brain cells. This may change how electrical signals get sent in the brain and make the person have epileptic seizures.

There are different kinds of traumatic brain injury which can cause head trauma seizures:

  • When the head suddenly strikes an object - such as in a car accident or a fall
  • Shaking their heads violently - which can happen in certain sports or through violence
  • Objects entering the skull and damaging brain tissue - such as gunshot wounds
  • Skull fractures - when pieces of the skull penetrate the brain tissue

Related: Abolitionist Harriet Tubman may have developed epilepsy after a brain injury

According to the CDC, one in 10 people who go to hospital with a traumatic brain injury develop epilepsy. However, this is more common in certain kinds of injury. For example, 65% of people who receive a gunshot injury to the head develop epilepsy.  

Brain trauma seizures are categorized as early or late stage:

  • Early stage: Early stage head trauma seizures are any epileptic seizure that happens within the first week after the brain injury. They are typically tonic clonic seizures, which is when the person will shake uncontrollably.
  • Late stage: A late stage seizure is any seizure that happens after the first week following the head injury. It could include seizures that begin one month after the brain injury and up to 15 years later.

Brain trauma seizures are often caused by focal epilepsy, which is when the seizure begins in a specific part of the brain. The seizures can progress and become generalized, which is where the unusual electrical behavior happens all over the brain. 

How are head trauma seizures diagnosed?

Doctors have a number of methods for diagnosing a brain trauma seizure including:

  • EEG machines - which identify any unusual electrical patterns in the brain
  • MRI and CT scans - which can find any physical damage to brain tissue
  • Observation - doctors may see the epileptic seizure happening, or the person’s friends and family might describe it

Head trauma seizure treatment

If you begin having epileptic seizures after a traumatic brain injury, your doctor will normally begin by putting you on a course of anti-epileptic medication. Medication does not help everyone, but there are other treatment options available. These include medical devices implanted under the skin, and brain surgery.

Between one quarter and 40% of people who’ve had a brain injury will go into remission (when you stop having seizures) after initial treatment.

Related: Will I always have seizures?

Long term monitoring for your brain trauma seizures

A brain injury is one of the most severe medical emergencies. People who are victims of these injuries often need long term care to help with rehabilitation. This might well include monitoring for seizures and recording them in an epilepsy diary. 

You can use Epsy to record any brain trauma seizures you have. This information cab get sent to your doctor so they have more information to help with your head trauma seizures and your recovery.