Anoxic Brain Injury: Symptoms, Treatment & Prognosis

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

In this lesson, you will learn about the particular nature of anoxic brain injury, resulting from a lack of oxygen to the brain. We will explore the causes of anoxia, its symptoms, aftereffects, and courses of treatment.

In an Instant

It was a wonderful night for Dana and Melvin. Mel had just received a promotion at work and decided to take his wife out to celebrate at their favorite steak house. During dinner, Mel laughed at something Dana said, just as he put a big bite of steak in his mouth. Suddenly, his eyes bulged and he grabbed his throat. Dana asked what was wrong, but Mel couldn't speak.

Dana panicked, yelling for help. The waiter rushed over and began giving Mel the Heimlich maneuver. At the next table, Dana heard a woman calling 911, stating the address of the restaurant and telling them a man was choking. Mel's face turned blue and he passed out during the ordeal; it felt like an eternity took place before the chunk of steak flew out of his throat. Mel was still unconscious when the waiter began CPR. At this point, paramedics arrived to take over, started working on him and rushed to the hospital.

The Aftermath

At the hospital, Dana waited on word concerning Mel. She was finally allowed into the intensive care unit, where she found him lying very still. He didn't respond to her entering the room or even when she tried speaking to him. Vickie, the charge nurse, revealed that Mel had suffered an anoxic brain injury. Anoxia is the term for ''lack of oxygen to the brain''. Vickie further explained that after four or five minutes without enough oxygen, brain cells begin to die; that is why Mel wore an oxygen mask and was being given a medication to help his brain absorb extra oxygen - to compensate for the period of time it had lost. She said the sooner Mel woke from his coma (or unresponsive state), the better his prognosis would be (his potential to recover).

While she waited through the night, Dana talked with the hospital staff and family members of other patients. Another ICU nurse mentioned that this type of injury could be caused for many reasons: heart attack, drowning, stroke, high-altitude mountain climbing, or any other condition that would prevent the brain from getting enough oxygen. She gave Dana an information sheet to read, and told her that recovery is often a slow and lengthy process. The nurse encouraged her as well, pointing out that Mel had a number of factors on his side; he was very healthy, relatively young, and his pupils responded to light when they checked his eyes.

First Steps

Early the next morning, Mel began to wake up. Dana got excited, but then worried when Mel didn't know who she was right away. He acted like he couldn't remember anything that happened and was very confused and agitated. The nurses gave him some medication to calm him down and help him rest. Over the next few days, his awareness improved, but impairment was obvious. He had difficulty paying attention or following a simple conversation. Occasionally, he had seizures, and although his speech was clear, his words made no sense. He could not name his children, much less common objects.

Dana was so disheartened. The therapy staff continued to be reassuring, reminding her that the scans of Mel's brain showed minimal damage. The restaurant waiter's quick action of administering CPR had kept some blood going to Mel's brain and probably saved his life. Mel began many forms of therapy while in the hospital: physical, to help him stand and walk; occupational, to help him relearn daily living activities, such as eating and bathing; and speech, to improve his lack of words and concentration. Once he was medically stable, he moved to a rehabilitation facility to start an overall intense therapy program.

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