Alcohol use and TBI are closely related. Up to two-thirds of people with TBI have a history of alcohol abuse or risky drinking. Between 30-50% of people with TBI were injured while they were drunk and about one-third were under the influence of other drugs. Around half of those who have a TBI cut down on their drinking or stop altogether after injury, but some people with TBI continue to drink heavily, which increases their risk of having negative outcomes.
After TBI, many people notice their brains are more sensitive to alcohol. Drinking increases your chances of getting injured again, makes cognitive (thinking) problems worse, and increases your chances of having emotional problems such as depression. In addition, drinking can reduce brain injury recovery. For these reasons, staying away from alcohol is strongly recommended to avoid further injury to the brain and to promote as much healing as possible.
Facts about TBI and alcohol
Alcohol and brain injury recovery
Recovery from brain injury continues for much longer than we used to think possible. Many people notice improvements for many years after injury.
Alcohol slows down or stops brain injury recovery.
Not drinking is one way to give the brain the best chance to heal.
People's lives often continue to improve many years after brain injury. Not drinking will increase the chance of improvement.
After TBI the brain is more sensitive to alcohol. This means that even one or two drinks may not be safe, especially when you need to do things that require balance, coordination and quick reactions, such as walking on uneven surfaces, riding a bicycle or driving a car. The fact is, there is no safe level of alcohol use after TBI.
Alcohol is especially dangerous after TBI if you are taking certain prescription medications. Alcohol can make some medicines less effective and can greatly increase the effects of others, potentially leading to overdose and death. Using alcohol along with anti-anxiety medications or pain medications can be highly dangerous because of the possible multiplying effect.
Alcohol is a drug. Almost everything mentioned above about alcohol applies equally to other drugs. If your drug of choice is something other than alcohol-such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine or prescription drugs, anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines such as Ativan, Valium, or Xanax), or pain medication (opioids like Percocet, Oxycodone or Oxycontin)-many of the same principles apply. In addition, use of illegal drugs or misuse of prescription drugs can lead to legal problems.
If you use multiple drugs like alcohol and marijuana, or alcohol and pain pills, there is a higher risk of addiction and overdose. Using alcohol and pain medications together, or alcohol and anti-anxiety medications, has killed many people. Contact your doctor if you are drinking and using prescription drugs.
The stakes are higher when people choose to use alcohol after having a TBI. Some people continue drinking after a TBI and don't have any desire to change that behavior. Others know they probably should stop or reduce alcohol use, but don't know how or have tried in the past and not been successful.
There are many ways to stop using alcohol or other drugs and many ways to reduce the potential for harm. The great majority of people who have stopped having alcohol problems did it on their own. They got no professional help or counseling and did not use Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Don't underestimate your ability to change if you want to.
There are many ways to change, cut down or stop drinking
The key ingredients to changing your drinking are: (1) find people who will support your efforts to change your drinking; (2) set a specific goal; (3) make clear how you will meet your goal; (4) identify situations or emotions that can trigger drinking, and figure out ways to cope with those triggers ahead of time; and (5) find ways to reward yourself for sticking to your plan and meeting your goals.
If you have questions or concerns about your drinking, there are many ways to get information or help:
No one can force another person to stop using alcohol or drugs, but you can have an influence. Attending Al Anon meetings can be a good source of support for a friend or family member of someone who abuses alcohol or drugs, and it can help promote change. Planning an "intervention" where family and friends confront the person may help.
A program called Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) has been found to work best. CRAFT takes a more positive, motivational approach that helps loved ones make not drinking more rewarding for the person with the alcohol problem. Research has shown that alcoholics are more likely to go into treatment if their loved ones follow the CRAFT method. To learn about CRAFT, see the book Get Your Loved One Sober in the Resources section below, or find a counselor familiar with this approach.
Bombardier, C.H. & Turner, A. (2009). Alcohol and traumatic disability. In R. Frank & T. Elliott (Eds.), The Handbook of Rehabilitation Psychology, Second Edition (pp. 241-258). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.
Corrigan, J., & Lamb-Hart, G. (2004). Alcohol, Other Drugs, and Brain Injury. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio Valley Center for Brain Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation, Ohio State University Dept. of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. (Available from the Brain Injury Association,http://www.biausa.org/LiteratureRetrieve.aspx?ID=43235. )
Meyers, R.J., & Wolfe, B.L. (2004). Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading, and Threatening. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publications.