Alcohol & Brain Injury: A Bad Mix


If you have experienced a traumatic brain injury, you may want to think twice about uncorking that bottle of wine or cracking open that can of beer.

Drinking any amount of alcohol after acquiring a brain injury (either from an accident or a medical impairment such as a stroke or aneurysm) can worsen problems associated with your injury. Experts say there is no safe amount of alcohol to drink if you have a brain injury, especially during the early recovery stage when your brain is healing.

Traumatic brain injuries can impair many brain functions that can be significantly worsened by alcohol. And when a brain injury and alcohol or other drugs are combined, the result is a more detrimental effect on the brain than either has alone.

Areas Affected By Brain Injury

There are several basic functions that can become impaired through a brain injury, and that can be made worse through the consumption of alcohol:

Memory: A brain injury can affect short-term memory and concentration, causing those who are injured to appear unmotivated if they miss appointments or show up late.

Cognition: Impairment to cognition can affect a person’s ability to multitask, pay attention, remain energetic and cope with noise levels and distractions.

Reasoning and Judgment: When reasoning and judgment are impaired, it can cause a person to behave inappropriately in social settings. Problems may include acting impulsively, intruding into another’s personal space or expressing oneself without inhibition.

Language: Impairment to language affects a person’s ability to understand others and express ideas clearly.

Executive Function: The executive function of the brain controls one’s ability to initiate, organize, direct, monitor and evaluate.

Motor Skills: A brain injury can have an effect on a person’s balance and ability to walk and talk.

Interaction of Brain Injury, Alcohol

The reasons someone with a brain injury should not drink alcohol go beyond even a heightened decrease in brain function. Because alcohol is a toxic and foreign substance in your body, it can interfere with the brain’s healing process. That can cause brain injury recovery to be delayed or incomplete.

If you have experienced a brain injury, alcohol is likely to have a stronger effect than it previously did. Because your brain will be more sensitive after an injury, it can’t absorb alcohol as well as it used to. Alcohol may also interfere with any prescription medications you are on to alleviate pain caused by the injury, and can increase the chance of seizures if mixed with an anti-seizure medication.

People with brain injuries are more likely to experience depression. That is because the life they once led has been significantly altered, and their recovery may be taking longer than they expected. If you are depressed, drinking alcohol will only cause your depression to intensify. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol will not improve your mood — while it may provide a temporary boost, alcohol is a depressant.

Drinking may also increase the likelihood of having another brain injury. If you are already experiencing problems with coordination, balance, vision and judgment, alcohol can intensify them and put you at greater risk for again damaging your brain. Remember, because your brain has already been injured, it takes less force to cause greater harm.

Treating Brain Injury and Substance Abuse

Many of the impairments to the brain caused by a brain injury are the same as those caused by drinking too much alcohol. Because of that, a person entering treatment for substance abuse may have masked a brain injury. And the treatment center may not realize a patient has a brain injury because the symptoms are so similar to those of substance abuse.

The course of treatment when a patient has a brain injury is generally the same as for any other patient. However, the staff at a residential treatment center needs to be aware of a patient’s brain injury to be able to provide special accommodations or instruction. A patient with a brain injury may need to be presented with material differently or be given more one-on-one time and less group time. If the staff is aware of the brain injury, they can assess the patient’s strengths and weaknesses, and the treatment modalities that will be most beneficial.

While most people are aware of any injury to their brain, some may not realize that the car accident they were in or spill they took down the stairs injured them. That is especially true if the person was dealing with a substance abuse issue at the time, as the clues that indicate a brain injury would likely be masked by the substance abuse.

If you are unsure if you have had a brain injury, or if the symptoms you are experiencing are related to a brain injury, seek the advice of a medical professional — and stay away from alcohol until you do.