Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is actually one of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. It is estimated that 1.7 million people sustain a TBI each year, and of that number, as many as 275,000 will be hospitalized and 52,000 will die—either directly of the injury or of subsequent complications.
A new study conducted by the University of Maryland School of Medicine has discovered a direct link between sufferers of TBI and an increase in chronic infections in the gastrointestinal system. While researchers have long recognized that TBI can affect the intestinal tract, the latest research has brought attention to why—specifically that TBI can cause long-term changes in the walls of the colon, making it more permeable and susceptible to infection. In turn, it is believed that the gastrointestinal infections lead to posttraumatic brain inflammation and associated tissue loss.
Although it is not clear as to why these changes happen, it is a vital first step in understanding the relationship between brain and intestinal injuries in order to prevent or correct the causal relationship. Currently, researchers believe the two exist as part of a potentially vicious cycle that initiates with a brain injury; causes gut dysfunction; leads to increased brain inflammation; and causes further intestinal injury. “These results really underscore the importance of bi-directional gut-brain communication on the long-term effects of TBI,” said Dr. Alan Faden, the study’s lead researcher. Statistics show that TBI sufferers are 2.5 times more likely to die of a digestive system problem and 12 times more likely to die from blood poisoning after a brain injury—often attributed to bacteria which may have flourished in the patient’s system once the gastrointestinal issues first manifested.
Other studies have also shown that issues in the digestive system can be linked to other illnesses or chronic suffering. This includes studies that have shown a relationship between strokes and gut bacteria as well as bad microbes in the digestive tract and their link to neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s. It is believed that even a mild brain injury can disrupt the delicate communication network between autonomic cerebral processing and the proper functioning of our intestinal tract. Once directives to the gut have been altered or interrupted, the effect on this major body system can quickly degrade into a repeated pattern of dysfunction, chronic pain or even disability.
Ultimately, each new study contributes more to understanding the connection between gut health, sickness and recovery. While it’s important to prevent injuries such as TBI, it’s also vital that we recognize the potential repercussions and do our best to prevent further damage to the body.
Both an Emory School of Law graduate and MBA graduate of Goizueta Business School at Emory, Chris Nace focuses his practice on areas of medical malpractice, drug and product liability, motor vehicle accidents, wrongful death, employment discrimination and other negligence and personal injury matters.