Seizures after traumatic brain injury: what you need to know

  • December 6, 2023
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In this article
A man rubbing his head after a traumatic brain injury

If you - or someone you know - are recovering from an accident which caused brain damage, it's important to know about seizures caused by brain injury. Not everyone has seizures after a traumatic brain injury, but there is a risk this might happen, and so it's important to be prepared.

Here's what you need to know about traumatic brain injury and seizures.

What is a traumatic brain injury?

A traumatic brain injury can be defined as damage to the brain caused by a sudden, external, physical assault. It covers a wide variety of injuries, including things like:

  • The head hitting objects or being hit: Things like falling and striking the head, something dropping on your head, physical assault, sports injuries and car crashes.
  • Violent shaking: Sometimes violent shaking can cause brain injury – for example in car crashes or avalanches.
  • Any objects piercing the skull and damaging the brain tissue: Things like gunshot wounds or pieces of skull breaking and entering the brain tissue

Can a brain injury cause seizures?

Yes, traumatic brain injury is a significant cause of epilepsy. Scientists estimate that between 10% and 20% of epilepsy is related to a traumatic brain injury. The seizures can begin at different times:

  • Post traumatic seizures: Seizures are common in the first 24 hours after a brain injury. They don’t always recur (happen again).
  • Early seizures: About 1 in 10 people who have a traumatic brain injury will have an early seizure. A seizure is ‘early’ if it happens within the first week after the accident.
  • Late seizures: Other people have ‘late’ seizures - which is any seizure that happens between seven days and up to 15 years after the accident (but most begin within two years).
  • Post traumatic epilepsy: This is when a person has two or more seizures that happen more than one week after the injury. 

Remember that not everyone who has a brain injury will develop epilepsy. Only about 10% of people hospitalized with a brain injury have seizures, and only 1 in 50 go on to develop post traumatic epilepsy.

Epilepsy stories: Read about Nikki, whose seizures began after a brain injury

Traumatic brain injury seizures: a complex picture

Working out who is likely to develop epilepsy due to a traumatic brain injury is complicated because different kinds of people and different kinds of injury have a different risk of developing epilepsy:

  • Injury type: Some kinds of brain injury are more likely to lead to post traumatic epilepsy. For example, 65% of people who have a brain injury caused by a gunshot wound go on to develop epilepsy.
  • Age: Young children are more likely to have early seizures after a brain injury, while adults and teens appear more likely to have late stage seizures and are more likely to develop post traumatic epilepsy too.
  • Severity: The kinds of seizures people have after traumatic brain injuries will depend on what part of the brain was damaged in the accident and how severely. Bleeding into brain tissue, bruising on the brain, or skull fractures where part of the skull enters the brain tissue all make post traumatic epilepsy more likely.

Because there are so many different factors involved in seizures caused by brain injury it is difficult to make general conclusions.  Each person's experience and risk of developing epilepsy will be unique.

Treatment and diagnosis of seizures caused by brain injury

If you (or someone you look after) begin having seizures after traumatic brain injury it is very important to visit a doctor to have the problem diagnosed and treated.

Epilepsy specialists will use a variety of methods to diagnose epilepsy after traumatic brain injury, including:

If you do develop epilepsy due to traumatic brain injury, the most common approach to treatment is to put you on a course of anti-epileptic drugs. These are a special kind of medication designed to control seizures. Medication works for some people but not for everyone. If not, doctors may recommend alternative treatments, including surgery and various kinds of medical devices.

Living with epilepsy after traumatic brain injury

Because seizures caused by brain injuries are fairly common, there is a large community of people out there who have a deep understanding of the issues. To begin with, speak with your treatment team about support, and they may refer you to local epilepsy and brain injury support groups for help, advice and understanding.

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