The symptoms of brain stem damage vary, depending on the intensity of the injury, and can span a range from mild cognitive impairments to coma. Identifying damage early and providing prompt treatment will improve the chances of a positive outcome significantly. Damage to the brainstem is most commonly associated with car accidents, but it can also be caused by sports injuries and other forms of trauma, such as sharp blows to the head. Medical evaluation will include examination by a neurologist along with imaging studies of the brain.
The brain stem is a very important part of the brain. Although it isn't involved in higher level cognitive processes, it does regulate a number of physical processes including heart rate, respiration, and balance. It also receives and distributes sensory input. When the brain stem is injured, these functions are disrupted and people may experience serious complications.
Commonly, brain stem damage causes a loss of consciousness. It may be temporary or more extended. People with severe brain stem damage can enter comas and persistent vegetative states with limited probability of waking up again. Other people may be conscious and aware, but could have severe breathing problems, abnormal heart rates, or balance disorders. More mild injuries may result in a staggering gait and sensory impairments associated with interruptions to sensory signals.
Symptoms of brain stem damage can include insensitivity to pain and other sensations, including in the viscera, which can be a serious problem. Patients with internal injuries may not exhibit pain in association with them, thus depriving doctors of a key diagnostic clue they could use to identify these injuries quickly. People can also have difficulty speaking and swallowing because the brain stem also controls the cranial nerves used to regulate facial muscle movements.
Damage to the brain stem is not just associated with physical trauma. Strokes and degenerative diseases can also cause it and the effects may be more subtle in these cases, as the onset can be slower. People who start to develop issues like having trouble walking or controlling the limbs, slurred speech, and sensory impairments should be evaluated for neurological injuries.
Treatments for brain stem damage can include medications, physical therapy, and supportive care such as mechanical respiration. Patients may need to use assistive devices to get around after some kinds of injuries and can benefit from assistance with developing a new communication method if they have trouble speaking clearly and being understood.