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The Top 5 Causes of Head Injuries and How to Avoid Them

Every 21 seconds someone in the US sustains a traumatic brain injury. One and a half million Americans suffer from head injuries annually, and over 80,000 of these injuries sustain permanent irreversible damage.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, head injuries are the leading cause of death in young adults and children. The CDC further finds that head injuries account for 44% of all injury related deaths in the US.

Every 21 seconds someone in the U.S. sustains a head injury.

The five most common causes of head injuries or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) are:

  • Car Accidents (passenger and pedestrian)

  • Bicycle /Motorcycle Accidents

  • Falls (especially kids and the elderly)

  • Sports

  • Acts of Violence/Assault

Our brains allow us to interpret ourselves and the world around us. When we sustain a head injury, there's a disruption in the brains' ability to store, process, accumulate and retrieve information. Damage to the brain can interfere with our ability to control emotions and interact socially.

Types and Symptoms of Head Injuries

Most all head injuries are preventable. Most head injuries do not result in permanent brain damage.

Although it is common to forget what happened immediately prior to, during and immediately following injury, great care should be taken as symptoms showing the full extent of a head injury may not develop for days.

Injuries can range from minor damage to the scalp and face, including laceration, bruising, and abrasions, to more serious life altering damage to the brain itself.

These are some of the most common types of head injuries:

  • Loss of consciousness, even for a short period of time, is one of the clearest indicators of the brain being affected from an injury

  • Concussion: jarring injury to the brain including passing out (short term)

  • Brain contusion: bruise of the brain with bleeding in brain causing swelling

  • Skull fracture: broken skull cuts the brain and delicate tissues causing bleeding

  • Hematoma: bleeding in brain collecting clots, forming bumps

These are symptoms to watch for following a blow to the head:

  • Headaches
  • Lethargy
  • Balance
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Bad taste in mouth
  • Slurred speech
  • Ringing in ears
  • Neck pain
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Problems concentrating
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty collecting thoughts
  • Trouble walking (balance)
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dilated pupils
  • Drainage of bloody or clear fluids from nose or ears
  • Weakness or numbness in limbs

Preventing Head Injuries from Vehicle Accidents

50,000 children are hit by a car each year, often with serious brain injuries.
Well over 50% of all head injuries in the US are involve car accidents. This includes passengers and pedestrians.

A pedestrian is killed in traffic accident every 107 minutes.

Most car accidents for passengers are due to improper use of seatbelts and child restraints.

Seatbelts and airbags are the best method of prevention when riding in the car. In the last 10 years seat belts have prevented over 55,000 deaths.

Keys to Preventing Head Injury Involving a Vehicle:

  • For adults and children over 12, Airbags used with lap-shoulder belts offer the most effective safety protection

  • Children in rear facing seats should always be in the back seat

  • Infants and children under 12 and should always be in the back seat, using a seatbelt

  • Never put infant in the front seat, rear facing or otherwise

  • For pedestrians: If walking after dark wear bright, reflective clothing

  • Do not wear headphones when crossing streets

  • Teach children to look left, right, then left again before crossing the street

Bicycle/Motorcycle Accidents

Nearly 80% of fatal bicycle crashes are due to head injuries. According to the Brain Trauma Foundation, 800 people die each year from bicycle/motorcycle injuries and over 17,000 are hospitalized.

Further statistics estimate that only 20% of children in US wear helmets while bike riding. Of the 350,000 children involved in bike relate accidents annually, 130,000 sustain head injuries.

Children who regularly see adults wearing helmets are more likely to use them also.

In states without helmet laws, only 20-25% of bikers and 28-40% of motorcyclists wear helmets. Motorcyclists are 14 times more likely to die in a crash and 3 times more likely to incur a head injury.

Preventing Head Injury on a Bike or Motorcycle

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says helmets are 85-88% effective in preventing head injuries.

Make sure you and your child's helmet fits directly over the forehead with a tight chin strap, and meets the standards of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission and/or the Snell Memorial Foundation.

For children: Help them to understand and obey safety rules of the road and always exercise caution when in traffic.

Here are key bicycle safety habits:

  • Stop at stop signs

  • Obey all traffic lights

  • Yield to all pedestrians

  • Take great care at intersections

  • Ride with traffic - never against

  • Use bike lanes whenever present

  • Check driveways and alleys

  • Watch for turning cars and parked cars (opening doors)

  • Ride single file in the street, never side by side

  • Never share a seat

  • Have reflectors/headlights for low visibility and night riding

  • Never use headphones while biking

  • Use correct hand signals and always look behind you before changing lanes

Important note: If there is a significant fall and your helmet hits a hard surface, immediately replace the helmet. Helmets actually lose their ability to absorb the shock of a hard blow once one has occurred.

Hand Signals:

  • Left: arm straight out to left
  • Right: Hold arm in an L shape, bedding up at elbow
  • Stop: Bend elbow down in an upside down L

Falls are a Top Cause of Head Injury - Especially to Seniors and Kids

Additionally, 1.8 million seniors 65 and over are treated in the ER for falls. Over 421,000 are hospitalized each year.

Falls are the leading cause of head injuries for the elderly. In fall-related deaths, 60% are 75 or older. Many seniors have problems with balance, environmental hazards such as uneven floors, loose rugs, unstable furniture and poor lighting.

How Seniors Can Prevent Falls
  • Exercise regularly to maintain strength; see your doctor before starting any exercise regime

  • Install grab bars/non-slip mats/handrails/lights

  • Remove items, such as personal effects or extension cords , that are easy to trip over

  • Review all possible side-effects of medications

  • Use safe non-slip shoes

  • Be sure to get regular vision tests and ensure you can see clearly

Falls are also among the top 10 diagnosis in emergency rooms for young children. The most frequent falls are in playgrounds, from walkers, windows and shopping carts. In playgrounds, 60% of injuries are due to falls, and in recent years over 5,500 head injuries have been reported from shopping cart falls.

Baby walkers send over 14,000 children to hospital each year. Infants can fall over objects, go through gates, down stairs and into pools. Don't use walkers; use a stationary activity saucer instead.

Windows are also responsible for many head injuries in children. Do not rely on screens in windows. Open windows from the top and use window guards (kids can fall through a 5" opening in windows).

Symptoms to Watch for in Young Children who Have Recently Fallen:

  • Won't stop crying

  • Head/neck pain

  • Inconsolable

  • Not eating/nursing

  • Not walking normally

  • Pupils of unequal size

  • Loss of bladder / bowel control

Make sure playgrounds have protective surfacing under and around equipment. Playground surfaces should have 12" all around of either wood chips, mulch, sand, pea gravel or mats of safety tested rubber or rubber like materials

How to Prevent Children from Falling

  • Never leave your child unattended in bath/shower

  • Use wall mounted, non-accordion safety gates

  • Use doorknob covers, locks, stops and door holders

  • Safety netting for balconies/decks

  • Install window guards and open windows from top

  • Watch for slippery floors and upper floor windows

  • Keep stairs clear

  • Watch width of railing/banisters - make sure it is not easy for young children to move through them

  • Watch for top heavy furniture your child could climb on

  • Protective padding for hard corners like coffee tables and countertops

  • Use nonskid strips in the bathtub

  • Make sure top bunks have guard rails and only allow kids 7 and older to sleep in them

  • Side rails on cribs should always be up

  • Use safety belts for infants in any stationary position: stroller/highchair/changing table/ shopping carts

  • Don't allow your child to ride or climb on the shopping cart

Sports Related Head Injuries

There are 300,000 sports-related concussions in the US each year, most occurring in contact sports like football, soccer, baseball, boxing and hockey. In football, brain injuries account for 65-85% of fatalities, and nearly 90% of all boxers have sustained some type of brain injury.

There is one proven measure in preventing head injuries in sports: protective gear. Helmets, mouth guards and padding can help prevent athletes from sustaining sometimes deadly head injuries.

Acts of Violence

Assaults and violent acts are responsible for over 10% of all reported head injuries in the U.S. Shaken baby syndrome, firearms, lightening strikes, and direct blows to the head are some of the most prevalent causes of these injuries.

Shaken baby syndrome is dangerous not only to the baby's head but the undeveloped neck, skull and brain as well. If you suspect this abuse, contact the authorities immediately.

More Facts About Head Injuries:

The Brain Injury Association of America reports 5.3 million Americans currently live with disabilities resulting from traumatic head injury. Additionally, 50,000 Americans die each year and 235,000 are hospitalized as a result of a head injury.

Scientists believe our brains are the organ of reason, language, social skills and morality, and that our brains and its complexities are what make us uniquely human.

When head injuries occur, the severity of head injuries are made through measuring the abilities of 3 functional systems in the brain: intellect, emotion and behavior control.

Permanent disabilities can include problems with cognition, sensory perception, communication and behavior/mental health. In worst cases, severe head injuries can result in coma, a persistent vegetative state, and death.

As always, knowledge of how to prevent them (which you just learned) and acting on this knowledge (which is up to you) are the main weapons you have in avoiding head injuries.

Recommended Reading

Extension Cords are Far More Dangerous Than Many Realize: Three Important Reasons to Check Your Cords Today

Falling from Windows: How to Prevent this Surprisingly Prevalent Tragedy that Surges in Spring/Summer


Brain Injury Resource Center

MedlinePlus Head & Brain Injury

Head Injuries

Facts & Stats

Brain Trauma Foundation

Traumatic Brain Injury

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