Traumatic Brain Injury and Drug Use: A Closer Look

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Brain scan illuminating an injured part of the brain.

It’s the big game. You’re running full speed toward the goal line. You have it in sight. You're focused. You're fast. This is it.

BAM! You’ve been hit. This is not it. The ball is gone; the moment is passed. And you're on your back. Nothing is broken, but your brain has been rattled. That hit has led to a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

TBI happens when a bump, blow, jolt, or other head injury causes damage to the brain. Every brain injury, even a concussion, is a TBI. A concussion happens when the brain bumps the skull. Usually a concussion causes a change in how the brain works or a brief loss of consciousness.

TBI and Drug Dependence: What's the Connection?

A recent study found that people who suffered a TBI before the age of 5, or between ages 16 and 25, have an increased risk for dependence on alcohol and drugs.

The verdict is still out on why this increased risk exists. What we do know is that our brains continue to grow and develop into our late teens and early 20s. This is a time when our brains are more vulnerable physically—not to just having a TBI in the first place, but to the consequences of TBI, including an increased risk for drug problems.

What Can Happen When You Use Drugs After a TBI?

Beyond just increasing the risk of using drugs, a TBI can also make using alcohol and drugs more harmful. For example:

  • After a TBI, teens may feel the effects of alcohol and drugs more quickly than before the injury. Some teens may find just a small amount of alcohol or drugs messes up their judgment and balance.
  • People with TBI may have difficulty thinking, balancing, remembering, and concentrating. Using marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs can make these problems worse.
  • Some teens may need to take prescription medications for their injury. When a person mixes prescription medications with drugs or alcohol, it can lead to a bad reaction, which sometimes can be deadly.
  • People under the influence of drugs or alcohol don't always make good choices, and those choices increase their risk for getting another injury.

What's the Safest Way to Recover from a TBI?

After a TBI, most people are impatient to return to their normal activities. And it’s natural to be sad when you have to sit on the bench while your brain recovers. (This will probably take a longer time to recover than your body, which feels ready for the field.)

But this study tells us that, while you can wallow and feel crummy about your situation, it's important to do it without using alcohol and drugs. Drugs or alcohol don't just interfere with the recovery process, they can set you up for drug problems—something no athlete wants.

Want to learn more about head injuries and how to prevent them? Check out Heads Up: Concussion for some great tips and information.

Update: Read the blog post, “Traumatic Brain Injury, Addiction, and the Developing Teen Brain.”

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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