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Brain injury - Recovering from a severe head injury

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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When your doctor discharges you from hospital, they will give you advice to help your recovery when you return home.

Your recovery programme will depend on your injury and your individual needs. However, you may be given some of the advice below.

Advice for adults

If you are recovering from a severe head injury, you may be advised to:

  • not be by yourself for the first 48 hours
  • have plenty of rest
  • avoid stressful situations
  • not drink any alcohol
  • not take sleeping pills, sedatives or tranquilizers (unless prescribed by your doctor)
  • not take aspirin (unless prescribed by your doctor)
  • take painkillers, such as paracetamol, if you have a headache (only take painkillers if advised to by your doctor and always follow the manufacturer's instructions)
  • not play any contact sports, such as football or rugby, for at least three weeks, and speak to your doctor before you start playing these sports again
  • not return to work or college until you have completely recovered and feel well enough to do so
  • not drive a car or motorbike, ride a bicycle or operate machinery until you feel completely recovered and it is safe and legal to do so

Return to the accident and emergency (A&E) department of a hospital if:

  • you lose consciousness or become confused, for example not knowing where you are
  • clear fluid leaks from your ear or nose
  • you are drowsy (sleepy) when you would usually be awake
  • you have problems speaking or understanding others
  • you lose your balance or have difficulty walking
  • you lose power in part of the body, such as weakness in an arm or leg
  • you develop a new problem with your eyesight
  • you have a headache that keeps getting worse
  • you have been sick 
  • you have a seizure or fit (when your body suddenly moves uncontrollably)

Advice for children

If your child is recovering from a severe head injury, you may be advised to:

  • give them painkillers, such as paracetamol, if they have a mild headache (always read the manufacturer's instructions and never give aspirin to children under 16 years of age)
  • only give them light meals for the first one to two days
  • avoid getting them too excited
  • avoid having too many visitors when they return home
  • not let them play sports
  • not let them play roughly for a few days

Take your child back to the accident and emergency department (A&E) of the hospital if they:

  • are unusually sleepy
  • have a headache that is getting worse or, if they are a baby, they cry for a long time
  • are unsteady when they walk
  • are repeatedly sick
  • have a seizure (fit), where they shake uncontrollably
  • develop a squint, blurred vision or double vision
  • lose consciousness

Follow-up appointments

See your GP in the week following your discharge from hospital to check how you are coping after your head injury. You may also need to attend one or more outpatient appointments. An outpatient appointment is a hospital appointment where you will not need to stay overnight. 

An outpatient appointment will usually be with a specialist, such as a neurologist (an expert in the brain and nervous system). They will check on the progress of your recovery.

The speed at which you recover from a severe head injury will depend entirely on the severity and nature of your injury, as well as your individual needs and your general health. Do not rush your recovery. It may take several months or sometimes years before you feel fully recovered.

After a head injury, a number of different healthcare professionals may help with your recovery. The treatment you receive will depend on how your head injury has affected you. Some of the treatments and the healthcare professionals you may see are described below.

Physiotherapy

If you experience physical problems after your injury, such as weakness, stiffness or poor co-ordination, you may be referred to a physiotherapist.

A physiotherapist uses a variety of treatments, such as massage, exercise and hydrotherapy (special exercises in warm, shallow water) to help you recover physically.

Read more information about physiotherapy.

Occupational therapy

The aim of occupational therapy is to get you to live as independently as possible. After a head injury, you may struggle with everyday tasks and activities, either at work or home. An occupational therapist can give you practical support to make those tasks easier.

Speech therapy

Sometimes, a head injury can affect your speech and you may struggle to communicate in the same way you did before the injury. A speech therapist will help you regain your communication skills.

Psychotherapy

After a severe head injury, you may have problems adjusting back to everyday life.

Psychotherapy is a type of therapy that involves talking to a trained mental health professional. They will help you talk through your worries and problems so that you can better understand and deal with your thoughts and feelings.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps change the way you think about things so that you deal with problems and difficulties more positively and effectively.

Psychiatry

Psychiatry is a medical field concerned with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental health conditions. Psychiatrists are medically qualified doctors who have chosen to specialise in psychiatry. This means they can prescribe medication as well as recommending other forms of treatment.

Getting support

Headway, the brain injury association, is a charity that provides help and support to people affected by head injuries.

For more information about all aspects of head injuries, call the Headway helpline on 0808 800 2244 between 9am and 5pm, Monday-Friday. The helpline staff can:

  • advise you about other sources of support
  • help you find local rehabilitation services
  • give you support and advice if you experience problems

You can use the Headway website to search for local Headway services. They offer a wide range of services, including rehabilitation programmes, carer support, social re-integration, community outreach and respite care (when short-term support is provided for someone who needs care, for example to give the usual carers a break). 

Headway cannot give medical advice or a diagnosis. For this, see your GP or call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47.

Medical Review: March 20, 2012
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