Part of rehabilitation and recovery after brain injury is taking care of physical health and wellbeing. This includes diet, exercise, sleep, and other healthy habits. Individuals with a brain injury may struggle with these kinds of habits. If that is the case for your patients/clients, they may rely on you to provide them with assistance or refer them to specialists such as dietitians.
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About 20% of people who survive a traumatic brain injury will develop a new problem with substance use . Brain injuries that have an impact on emotional regulation or risk-taking may increase the risk of substance use disorders. Boredom, pain and stress can also cause a person to use drugs for relief. People who used drugs and alcohol before their injury may wonder if it is safe to return to use.
In general, research suggests that it is best to avoid using alcohol or other substances after brain injury to allow the brain to heal and avoid more serious problems. Understanding how drugs affect recovery after brain injury can help you and your patient/client navigate this issue.
There are several effects that substance use can have on someone after their brain injury, including:
- Impulsivity or poor judgement
- Increased risk of seizures
- Increased risk of another brain injury
- Slowing down or limiting recovery
- Problems with balance and walking
- Problems with concentrating and memory
- Feeling increased effects from alcohol and drugs
- Increased feelings of depression
- Negative interactions with prescribed medications
Drinking alcohol after a brain injury
The brain may be more susceptible to the effects of alcohol, which can impact balance, coordination, mood and cognitive processing. Alcohol is also incredibly dangerous to mix with prescription medications they may be taking after their acquired brain injury. If they drink regularly, alcohol may also be having a negative effect on recovery.
While abstaining from alcohol is the safest option, it is always best to encourage your patient/client to speak with their doctor about alcohol use and their brain injury.
Substance use rehabilitation and brain injury
One of the existing challenges with treatment for substance use and brain injury at the same time is that current facilities/programs are not equipped to handle both. The majority of brain injury rehabilitation, community, and support programs require participants to be sober. Similarly, centres and programs that specialize in addiction support are not able to handle the needs of someone with a brain injury. While there are more and more resources being developed to help service providers, there is still a need for programs and facilities to develop working knowledge of the diverse needs of individuals seeking treatment for problematic substance use.
If your patient/client is using drugs or alcohol, it is important for them to work with professionals to ensure they are not using at the time of appointments. Encourage your patient/client to develop an open and honest dialogue with their treatment team is the best way to ensure they will be able to continue their rehabilitation.
Resources and supports for people with substance use disorders
- Alcoholics Anonymous branches in Canada
- Find a Narcotics Anonymous meeting
- The Smart Recovery Program
- From Canada.ca: a complete list of substance use support services available by province/territory
- How to discuss substance use - a guide by Canada.ca
- The Acquired Brain Injury Partnership Project has an informative video on substance use and brain injury
- Addiction - An Information Guide provided by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for people with substance use problems and their families/friends.
- Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines
- Find a branch of the Canada Mental Health Association
- HelpGuide.org’s practical tips for overcoming addiction
- You and Substance Use Workbook by HeretoHelp BC
- Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit. Please note this is Ontario specific, but the information is applicable Canada-wide
- Brain injury and substance use workbook
- Additional information on opioid overdose