What are the Long-Term Symptoms of Brain Stem Damage?

Friday, August 18, 2023

What are the Long-Term Symptoms of Brain Stem Damage?

Written by Malman Law, reviewed by Steve J. Malman.

Brain damage can range from mild to severe, with 2.5 million people suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year. Of those people, approximately 50,000 people die and 80,000 live with long-term disabilities.

When the brain stem is affected, a person will have difficulty performing basic functions, and will most likely never make a full recovery.

The brain injury lawyers at Malman Law are here to provide an overview of what long-term symptoms a person may experience in sustaining brain stem damage.

What is the Role of the Brain Stem?

The brain stem is stalk-like and is located at the base of the skull. It is responsible for sending nerve signals between the brain and the spinal cord.

The brain stem regulates important life functions including:

  • Breathing
  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Swallowing
  • Sleep
  • Tear production
  • Balance or equilibrium
  • Motor commands: eye movement, facial expressions, swallowing, and chewing
  • Reflexive actions: sneezing, coughing, and vomiting

The brainstem is the command center for our cardiac and respiratory functions.  The brain stem controls the heart’s ability to beat and the circulation of oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.

Parts of the Brain Stem

The brain stem is composed of three major parts: the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata.

The function of these three parts can be summarized in the following:

  • Midbrain: the top part of the brain stem; crucial for regulating eye movements
  • Pons: the middle portion of the brain stem; coordinates facial movements, hearing, and balance
  • Medulla Oblongata: the bottom part of the brainstem; helps regulate your breathing, heart rhythms, blood pressure, and swallowing.

The brain stem also houses your reticular activating system (RAS). This controls your sleep and wake cycles, which allows you to remain alert during the day.

The Cerebrum and Cerebellum

The brain stem connects the cerebrum and cerebellum to the spinal cord. The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain, composing the top and front of the skull.

The cerebrum is responsible for your “conscious” actions, or any task that requires thinking. The cerebrum is composed of four lobes, or sections, of the brain. These lobes are the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and occipital lobe.

The cerebrum’s responsibilities can be summarized by the following:

  • Your five senses: interpreting anything that you experience with your senses, including sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch
  • Language: controls your ability to read, write, and speak
  • Working memory: a type of short-term memory, such as learning someone’s name after meeting them and remembering it during your conversation
  • Behavior and personality: controlled by the frontal lobe, the cerebrum helps you make judgments in what to say or do, and what not to say or do
  • Movement: the motor cortex, which is located in the frontal lobe, allows the cerebrum to send signals to your muscles to allow movement
  • Learning, logic, and reasoning: vastly controlled by the prefrontal cortex (part of the frontal lobe), the cerebrum allows you to learn new skills, make a plan, and solve puzzles

The cerebellum is the part of the brain that is located in the back of the skull. It is located above and behind the spinal cord, at the junction between the brain and the spinal cord.

Besides controlling your movements, the cerebellum plays a major part in:

  • depth perception;
  • judging the size of objects;
  • balancing;
  • learning new words or skills; and
  • timing

What Can Cause Brain Stem Damage?

A traumatic brain injury is a forceful blow or jolt to the head. Many people associate brain stem damage with a TBI, but that is only one of several ways in which a person may experience brain stem damage.

Besides TBIs, damage to the brain stem can also be caused by:

  • Myocardial infarction (“heart attack”): a blockage preventing blood flow to the heart
  • Cardiac arrest: when the heart stops beating and the brain is starved of oxygen
  • Ischemic stroke: when a blood clot forms within the vessels that supply blood directly into the brain stem
  • Blood clot: a blockage in a blood vessel that disturbs or blocks the flow of blood in your body
  • Brain hemorrhage: bleeding in the brain that can disrupt oxygen delivery to the brain
  • Brain tumor: abnormal, uncontrollable growth of cells in the brain, which can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign)
  • Encephalitis: inflammation of brain tissue that can eventually exert pressure on the brain stem

Symptoms of Brain Stem Damage

Due to its location, the brain stem is susceptible to injury. Brain stem damage can impair a person’s ability to think, and can impact their memory and personality.

While a penetrating head injury may be apparent, the brain can also swell and blood vessels can rupture in a non-penetrating injury, which may be less obvious.

Any inflammation of the brain can also put pressure on the brain stem. This pressure is caused by the brain not having enough room within the skull. As a result, the brain pushes against the skull, and this pressure causes damage to the brain stem.

Symptoms of brain stem damage may present as:

  • Dizziness
  • Irregularity in breathing
  • Abnormal sleeping patterns
  • Repetitive jerky eye movements
  • Impaired vision

Long-Term Symptoms

Brain stem damage is often life-threatening. For those patients who do have brain stem damage and survive, the ramifications are usually long-term. Patients rarely make a full recovery from a brain stem injury.

Long-term symptoms of brain stem damage may include:


A prolonged loss of consciousness is caused by damage to the brain neurons which aid in helping us wake up. A coma usually lasts until brain swelling reduces.

Before a person regains consciousness, he or she will pass through the following three stages of consciousness:

  • Vegetative state: in this state, the eyes may open and shut
  • Minimally conscious state: in this state, the person falls in and out of consciousness, but can respond by smiling or blinking his or her eyes
  • Confusional state: in this state, the person is awake and aware, but cannot fully control his or her behavior


A person who sustains brain stem damage may be unable to control or move any muscles, often experiencing complete paralysis. These patients are often unable to feel sensations in these paralyzed muscles.

Locked-In Syndrome

A person who experiences locked-in syndrome will be completely paralyzed, only having the ability to move their eyes. The patient can hear and understand everything happening around them, but be unable to communicate.

Due to this lack of ability to move and communicate, patients with locked-in syndrome may be misdiagnosed as being in a coma.

Medical Malpractice Causing Brain Injuries

Brain injuries can happen in the course of routine surgery. If an anesthesiologist does not properly place a breathing tube, the patient may not receive adequate oxygen. This can result in brain damage.

If a patient is not treated in a timely manner, fault can be found with the surgeon. For example, if a person suffers a subdural hematoma (bleeding between the brain and the skull), the patient will most likely require a craniotomy. If this operation is not performed soon after the initial brain injury, a surgeon may be unable to adequately repair the damage.

Although it may be difficult to detect brain damage immediately, surgeons and physicians must be held responsible for their medical errors.

Actual Damages

In any personal injury claim, damages are often awarded to an injured party. If you or a loved one has suffered brain stem damage due to another person’s negligence, you may be able to receive compensation for your financial and emotional hardship.

Actual damages fall under two main groups: economic and noneconomic damages. These are damages that may be awarded by an insurer or by the court which reflect the loss that a person has endured. These damages are also known as compensatory damages.

Economic damages are easily quantifiable and compensation covers the dollar amount of the particular loss.

Examples of economic damages:

  • Lost wages
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Physical therapy
  • Long-term care
  • Home modifications and medical equipment

In contrast, noneconomic damages are intangible losses that negatively affect a person’s quality of life, but do not have monetary value on their own.

Examples of noneconomic damages:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Infliction of emotional distress
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Loss of consortium
  • Reputational damage

Punitive Damages

In some situations, an injured party can seek punitive damages. Punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer. The plaintiff must prove through “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant showed either a reckless disregard or indifference for the safety of others, resulting in injury. Punitive damages may also be awarded if the plaintiff can show that the defendant acted intentionally, or with “evil motive.”

Punitive damages are also known as exemplary damages because they are “extra” damages, beyond the actual losses endured. A claimant is only entitled to punitive damages if he or she receives compensatory damages.

In any civil case, the amount of punitive damages awarded cannot be more than three times the amount of economic damages. According to Illinois statute, you are barred from recovering punitive damages in medical malpractice suits.

Upon reviewing your case, a Chicago brain injury lawyer will be able to determine which economic and noneconomic damages you should request, and if you are eligible to receive punitive damages.

A Chicago Brain Injury Lawyer Advocating for You

Brain stem damage will change your life permanently. If you have suffered injury to your brain stem, you need an advocate by your side. Contact us today to schedule your free consultation.

Steve Malman

Malman Law’s founder Attorney Steven Malman has over 30 years of experience handling personal injury, nursing home, medical malpractice, truck accidents, car accidents, premises liability, construction, and workers’ compensation cases in Chicago, IL.

Years of experience: +30 years
Justia Profile: Steve Malman
Illinois Registration Status: Active and authorized to practice law—Last Registered Year: 2024

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This page has been written, edited, and reviewed by a team of legal writers following our comprehensive editorial guidelines. This page was approved by President and Founder, Steven J. Malman who has more than 20 years of legal experience as a personal injury attorney.

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