A Look at the Latest Science on Recovery from Moderate to Severe TBI

Lever & Ecker, PLLC August 22, 2019 Car Accidents

Even after centuries of advancements in medical science, the human brain remains something of a mystery. In fact, experts have said that humans know more about the ocean and its deepest fathoms than they do about their own brains.

It is so complex and sophisticated an organ that doctors are only beginning to understand how the brain copes with injury and heals over time.

Naturally, it’s a topic of immediate concern for anyone whose loved one has just suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). That’s the medical term for any blow to the head or bruising of the brain — including concussion.

How long does it take to recover from a traumatic brain injury? Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Some people experience a total recovery in a short period of time. Others may recover more gradually or not at all.

But that doesn’t mean recovery is purely speculative. Scientists now know which factors increase the likelihood of recovery, when the bulk of recovery happens, and how the brain progresses from one stage of recovery to the next.

What follows is a brief overview of the latest science on recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

How Does the Brain Recover?

The brain has two principal mechanisms for “healing itself” after a traumatic brain injury:

  • Growing new brain cells (or repairing damaged ones)
  • “Rewiring” brain connections (i.e. using new pathways to substitute for now-broken brain connections), which may develop through various neurological processes (e.g. behavioral substitution, diaschisis, etc.)

It is thought that the latter (“rewiring”) accounts for most of the recovery after a traumatic brain injury, as the brain’s capacity to “regenerate” may be somewhat limited.

Recovery might also be facilitated by the use of certain medicines, through surgical intervention, or with extensive physical therapy and other medical treatments.

Indicators of Recovery

Doctors are hesitant to make predictions about any patient’s prospects for recovery, as outcomes vary so much from one case to the next. There is no clear basis for determining who will recover and who won’t. Still, some factors do appear to suggest a greater likelihood of significant recovery. These include:

  • Shorter duration of coma (see below)
  • Shorter duration of post-traumatic amnesia (see below)
  • Age of patient between 2 and 60

There is also some data to suggest that recovery might benefit from:

  • Overall good health of the patient
  • High-quality, long-term rehabilitative care
  • Support from family and friends
  • Avoidance of stressors (including financial stressors), which may include employer support
  • The patient’s positive attitude, “can-do” personality, and/or spiritual faith

Stages of Recovery

Generally speaking, the most significant recovery from a traumatic brain injury occurs during the first six months after the injury. That said, some patients experience more significant recoveries many months or years after the date of injury.


The patient is completely unconscious, unable to speak, hear, perceive, or respond. Still, the critical early stages of recovery may already be underway.

Vegetative State

The patient remains unconscious, but sleep-wake cycles resume. Family members and nurses may begin to observe reflexes — including the opening of the eyes — which are not responses to specific stimuli but which may nevertheless be signs of progressive recovery. (Note: some experts do not recognize “vegetative state” as a distinct state of recovery.)

Minimally Conscious State

The patient slowly begins to regain consciousness, often for brief periods at a time. He or she may begin to regain perception and the ability to respond to stimulus. Some patients are even able to speak, answer questions, or follow instructions.

Full Consciousness

Having fully emerged from unconsciousness, many patients will now begin to show rapid signs of improvement from day to day. However, the patient may experience profound difficulties with memory, sometimes unable to remember their own family members or to recognize their surroundings. This is referred to as post-traumatic amnesia and it may occur intermittently throughout early recovery.


With the majority of recovery behind them, the patient must now learn to adapt to any new limitations caused by the brain injury (whether physical, mental, social, or emotional). Support from friends, family, and caregivers is extremely important as the patient learns to live life differently, absent a full recovery.

The transition from one stage to the next is not always linear or progressive. Some patients linger at one stage and never progress to the next. Others may skip stages completely, while others still might show early signs of progression and then suddenly regress.

Scientists hope to someday develop a more precise approach to the question of “how long does it take to recover from a traumatic brain injury?” While the uncertainty can be less than encouraging, families can take hope in this fact: brain science is currently advancing at a rapid and unprecedented pace.

Statistically Speaking, How Long Does It Take to Recover from a Traumatic Brain Injury?

In a study by Drs. Thomas Novack, PhD and Tamara Bushnik, PhD, in collaboration with the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center (MSKTC), researchers found that:

  • 25% of people experience major depression after a TBI (either as a direct result of the injury itself or in response to the major life changes and challenges that the injury brings about).
  • Two years after the date of their TBI, more than 90% of patients are living in a private home instead of a skilled nursing facility.
  • Among those TBI patients who were living alone prior to their injury, roughly half return to living alone within two years of the injury.
  • However, 30% of people still require at least some in-home help with certain tasks.
  • Roughly 50% of TBI patients are able to begin driving again within two years of the injury (though sometimes with limitations on when, how often, or for how long they can drive).
  • Only about 30% of the people who experience a moderate to severe TBI are able to return to work within the first two years (and not always to the same job they had before).

Schedule a Confidential Consultation with our NYC & White Plains Brain Injury Lawyers.

Lever & Ecker, PLLC is a New York personal injury law firm with years of experience in helping injured people and their families claim the financial justice they deserve. We have worked directly with TBI victims and their families in order to guide them through the claims process and advance their best interests at every turn.

We offer a free initial consultation to victims of traumatic brain injury in New York. If you decide to hire us, we will not charge a fee for our services unless and until we get you money.

Time limits do apply to most traumatic brain injury claims in New York, so please don’t delay. To get started, call (914) 288-9191 in White Plains, or simply contact us online.

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