How to Recover Memory After a Brain Injury

6 min read  |  November 15, 2023  | 
Disponible en Español |

Key Takeaways:

  • Memory recovery after a brain injury can be aided by cognitive rehabilitation therapy, which involves memory exercises and strategies to improve recall.
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including proper nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate sleep, can contribute to brain health and memory recovery post-injury.
  • The use of memory aids such as calendars, notes, and alarms can help individuals manage daily tasks and improve their memory function after a brain injury.

Daily life can be challenging after a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Even a mild sports-related concussion can cause memory and cognition issues that complicate simple tasks, make conversations hard to follow, and alter emotions and reactions. 

TBIs happen when an external force to the head or body impacts brain functions. TBIs range in severity from mild to moderate to severe. 

“Mild TBIs are by no means mild for the person suffering from their injury,” says Mitchell Slugh, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist with the University of Miami Health System. “Their symptoms, treatments, and projected outcomes can be very different from those with severe injuries.”

The vast majority of head injuries (approximately 90%) are considered mild, which means there’s no loss of consciousness (or a brief one) and only a short period of confusion called post-traumatic amnesia.

What are the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury?

A mild TBI can leave you with little to no memory of the injury (and sometimes of the day or several days prior to the injury).

“Learning and recalling new information is typically most affected. Prospective memory or ‘remembering to remember’ to do something — like remembering that you promised you would wash the dishes or pick up a child from school” can also be challenging.

Following a mild TBI, you may also experience the following:

  • anxiety
  • mental fogginess
  • feeling slowed down
  • concentration problems
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • balance problems
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fatigue
  • sensitivity to light and noise
  • sadness
  • irritability
  • sleeping too much or too little

How long is recovery from a TBI?

“The first thing I tell someone experiencing memory changes after a mild traumatic brain injury is to be reassured that the vast majority of people who suffer this injury recover fully,” says Dr. Slugh.

Your doctor may ask the following questions and consider many other factors to predict how well you will recover after a TBI.

  • How severe is the injury?
  • How intense are the symptoms shortly after the injury?
  • Are you experiencing post-injury psychological symptoms?
  • How was your pre-injury mental health?

The outcome for a mild TBI (like a concussion) is better than for a more severe brain injury (accompanied by unconsciousness, bleeding in the brain, or coma). 

“Typically, recovery following a mild TBI takes one to two weeks and up to four weeks,” Dr. Slugh says. “However, studies suggest that approximately one in five people who have suffered a mild TBI will have symptoms that last for a month or more.”

If memory problems last longer than one to two weeks for adults (or two to four weeks for children and adolescents) after a mild TBI, patients should seek a professional clinical evaluation to help identify what may be delaying or complicating recovery.

“When we develop plans for improving memory in those with persisting cognitive complaints, the first step is to carefully evaluate all the factors that could be contributing to these problems,” Dr. Slugh says.

“Underlying factors that need to be ruled out or addressed include sleep problems, post-traumatic pain, anxiety and depression, and the disrupting effects of balance or vision problems, among other factors. Improving memory after an injury may require addressing a host of these factors and often is best accomplished with a team of treatment providers in a specialty clinic.”

How to enhance your memory after a mild TBI

To reduce symptoms and promote effective recovery, Dr. Slugh recommends resting for one to two days immediately following a brain injury, then gradually returning to activity (both physical and cognitive).

After this initial rest period, the following techniques and lifestyle changes may help improve your short-term memory and other cognitive abilities:

  • Use word and visual associations to establish new memories
  • Create information “chunks” (group items together in your mind)
  • Rehearse information (repeat items to remember, and space out the repetitions)
  • Listen to music
  • Write things down; create checklists with deadlines
  • Use paper or mobile app calendars, to-do lists, and phonebooks
  • Exercise (aerobic exercise, in particular, promotes injury recovery)
  • Get more quality sleep
  • Lower your stress (try psychotherapy, yoga, meditate/mindfulness exercises, socialize, enjoy hobbies, get outside more often) 
  • Avoid distractions when trying to establish a new memory or recall something
  • Ask people to talk slower or repeat themselves
  • Keep daily-use items in consistent, visible places in your home, office, and car
  • Fill a weekly pillbox for medications and vitamins

Should you change your diet? 

“The research on diet after TBI to improve memory isn’t fully established,” Dr. Slugh says. However, some dietary choices can promote your overall brain health by reducing inflammation and supporting good bacteria in the body’s microbiome.

Research shows that the Mediterranean Diet and the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH Diet), in particular, can slow age-related cognitive decline.

Do memory games work? 

You can stay mentally active by practicing cognitive exercises, including computerized memory games. Incorporating “brain games” into your life may build your cognitive reserve and potentially help protect you from developing dementia. Though, Dr. Slugh warns that the research on the effectiveness of memory games is mixed. 

Having a hard time paying attention? 

Avoid distractions to encourage new information to sink in. “For example, if your poor attention is getting in the way of remembering conversations, it’s best not to discuss important topics in crowded restaurants or while scrolling social media,” he says.

Regardless of your particular memory issues following a TBI, “the progress of recovery never stops,” Dr. Slugh says. “We never lose hope for people to develop strategies to perform at their best possible level, even years after a severe brain injury.”

Learn more about the University of Miami’s Concussion Program and Clinic

Dana Kantrowitz is a contributor for UHealth’s news service.

Originally published on: January 12, 2023

Tags: cognitive decline, cognitive function, ct scan, damage to the brain, Dr. Mitchell Slugh, head injury, loss of consciousness, memory loss, physically active, play a role, short term memory, traumatic brain injury tbi

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