What Happens if the Brain Stem is Damaged?

Friday, August 11, 2023

What Happens if the Brain Stem is Damaged?

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

Every year, more than 2.8 million people in the United States suffer from a traumatic brain injury. What you may not realize is that while some individuals can recover from mild traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, brain stem damage is almost always irreparable.

If you have a loved one who has experienced brain stem damage, you need the Chicago brain injury lawyers at Malman Law.

What is the Brain Stem’s Function?

The brain stem is the lower part of the brain that connects to the spinal cord. It regulates the body’s automatic functions, including:

  • Breathing
  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Swallowing

The brain is responsible for all of our bodily functions. The brain stem controls our heart function and the ability for oxygen to circulate in our blood.

The brain stem is composed of three major parts: the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata. There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves associated with the brain. 10 of 12 cranial nerves originate in the brain stem.

These cranial nerves are responsible for controlling our hearing, eye movements, facial sensations, and movements of the face, neck, shoulder, and tongue muscles.

What Can Cause Brain Stem Damage?

TBI is a forceful flow or strike to the head which has been shown to cause damage to the brain stem. Many people associate brain stem damage with a TBI, but that is only one of several ways in which damage may occur to the brain stem.

Damage to the brain stem is usually life-threatening and can 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

Can Surgery Cause Brain Stem Damage?

Lack of blood flow or oxygen to the brain can result in brain stem damage. Since the brain stem transmits nerve signals from the brain to the spinal cord, brain stem damage can cause a person to lapse into a coma.

Although brain stem damage is often associated with accidents and medical conditions, a patient can sustain brain stem damage from complications during surgery. Most of these complications are preventable. The onus is on the surgeon and surgical team to make sure that the breathing tube is properly placed and the patient is receiving adequate oxygen.

Severe blood loss is another complication that can occur during a surgical procedure. When a patient loses significant blood volume, not enough blood can reach the brain, causing brain cells to die.

Signs of Brain Stem Damage

Brain stem damage can present in a variety of ways, depending on the severity of a person’s condition.

Common signs may include:

  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Breathing and respiratory problems
  • Balancing problems
  • Insomnia or abnormal sleep patterns
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness and confusion
  • Problems in eating, drinking, or swallowing
  • Coughing or gagging
  • Paralysis

When the brain stem is not working properly, neurologic signals to the rest of the body are disrupted. While some of these symptoms may appear minor, if left untreated, these symptoms can quickly become fatal.

If you suspect that someone you know has brain stem damage following a motor vehicle accident, fall, or work injury, they should receive medical care immediately. Studies show that the long-term impact of a brain stem injury can be reduced when medical aid is acquired as soon as possible following an incident.

What Tests Can Be Performed to Check for Brain Stem Damage?

Diagnostic tests must be performed to confirm brain stem death. Before these tests are performed, the patient must meet the following criteria:

  • Unconscious and fail to respond to outside stimulation
  • Must require a ventilator to breathe and maintain a steady heartbeat
  • Evidence showing that brain damage has taken place

A physician can conduct an examination to test for brain damage by:

  • Checking for a pupillary light response: a bright light is shone into both eyes to see if the pupils react to light
  • Checking for corneal reflex: the cornea (outer layer of the eye) is stroked with a piece of tissue or cotton wool to check for involuntary, rapid eye blinking
  • Performing caloric stimulation: ice-cold water is inserted into each ear, which would usually cause the eyes to move in an involuntary movement called nystagmus
  • Checking for a cough or gag reflex: a thin, plastic tube is placed down the trachea to see if the person coughs or gags
  • Performing a spontaneous breathing trial (SBT): the patient receives minimal or no ventilator support to determine if the individual can breathe without assistance from a machine

Types of Compensation

A person who suffers brain stem damage will need around-the-clock care. Whether you or the primary caregiver or you hire a home health aide, the costs to care for this individual can be incredibly expensive.

In a brain stem injury case, the following types of compensation may be available:

  • Caregiver costs
  • Lost income
  • Lost earning potential
  • Rehabilitative treatment therapy
  • Pain and suffering

You may be entitled to compensation for lost wages if you had to reduce your work hours or quit your job to take care of your family member or loved one.

Role of a Brain Injury Lawyer

When the brain stem is damaged, it can lead to permanent disabilities. A family member who has cognitive impairment due to brain stem death will require ongoing treatment.

A brain injury lawyer will be able to gather the facts of your case and determine what parties and actions caused your family member’s brain stem injury. We will consult with medical professionals to better understand what contributed to your loved one’s injury.

From there, we will gather the necessary evidence to prove what party is liable. In any brain injury case, medical imaging will be crucial to determine the extent of brain damage. We will review all brain scans with our network of physicians.

A Chicago Brain Injury Lawyer Seeking Justice

A brain stem injury affects not just the victim but an entire family. The injured person will never have the same quality of life due to another person’s actions. If someone you are close to has suffered brain stem damage, we are here to help. Contact us today to schedule your free, no-obligation 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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