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traumatic brain injury (TBI)

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A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is caused by an external force, commonly a bump or blow to the head (including sports-related injuries), a fall, or a motor vehicle accident that disrupts brain function. A concussion is the most common type of TBI, although not all TBIs are concussions. To describe these injuries and their effects, “brain injury” is more precise than “brain damage,” which can imply a deficiency and can be irrelevant in discussions of mild brain injuries that may not cause permanent damage. For brain injuries that cause extended periods of unconsciousness, “comatose” is more accurate than “vegetable” or “vegetative state” (which is an increasingly outdated medical term). 

The neurological damage or effects caused by drug overdose, particularly opioids, are an emerging area of research and concern the type of brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen. Because traumatic brain injury is defined by its cause from an external force, an overdose-related injury is now often called a toxic brain injury.

Traumatic brain injuries can have a wide range of effects, including in communication, motor functioning, and sensory changes. While TBIs frequently cause emotional or psychological changes, the injury is not in and of itself an explanation for a specific behavior, nor does it constitute a person’s entire emotional state. Be aware of the differences between describing what a person’s behavior looks like, what it may feel like to them or how they describe it, and describing the effects of an injury.

Groups such as NFL players and veterans have been found to be at higher risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated traumatic brain injuries and head trauma. It’s important to note that having had multiple concussions is not the same as having CTE (which currently is only diagnosable postmortem), nor will multiple concussions necessarily result in CTE. In fact, what correlates most strongly to football players developing CTE is not the number of concussions but the number of years spent playing tackle football. When covering an NFL player whose CTE status is unknown, it’s important not to rely on “armchair diagnosis” (your own or that of a health expert who hasn’t personally examined the person in question) or assume their behavior is brought on solely by injury.

Instead of…Preferable phrasing
brain damage, brain damagedbrain injury, traumatic brain injury, person with a traumatic brain injury
vegetable, vegetative stateperson in a coma, comatose

Additional resources


A traumatic brain injury is an injury due to an external force that disrupts brain function. “Brain injury” is clearer and less stigmatizing than “brain damage,” which can imply a deficiency and is not always medically accurate.