Head Injury Overview
Traumatic head injuries are a major cause of death, and disability but it might be best to refer to the damage done as traumatic brain injury.
The purpose of the head, including the skull and face, is to protect the brain against injury. In addition to the bony protection, the brain is covered in tough fibrous layers called meninges and bathed in fluid that may provide a little shock absorption.
When an injury occurs, loss of brain function can occur even without visible damage to the head. Force applied to the head may cause the brain to be directly injured or shaken, bouncing against the inner wall of the skull. The trauma can potentially cause bleeding in the spaces surrounding the brain, bruise the brain tissue, or damage the nerve connections within the brain.
Caring for the victim with a head injury begins with making certain that the ABCs of resuscitation are addressed (airway, breathing, circulation). Many individuals with head injuries are multiple trauma victims and the care of their brain may take place at the same time other injuries are stabilized and treated.
The skull is made up of many bones that form a solid container for the brain. The face is the front part of the head and also helps protect the brain from injury. Depending upon the location of the fracture, there may or may not be a relationship between a fractured skull and underlying brain injury. Of note, a fracture, break, and crack all mean the same thing, that the integrity of the bone has been compromised. One term does not presume a more severe injury than the others. Fractures of the skull are described based on their location, the appearance of the fracture, and whether the bone has been pushed in.
Location is important because some skull bones are thinner and more fragile than others. For example, the temporal bone above the ear is relatively thin and can be more easily broken than the occipital bone at the back of the skull. The middle meningeal artery is located in a groove within the temporal bone. It is susceptible to damage and bleeding if the fracture crosses that groove.
- Basilar skull fractures occur because of blunt trauma and describe a break in the bones at the base of the skull. These are often associated with bleeding around the eyes (raccoon eyes) or behind the ears (Battle's sign). The fracture line may extend into the sinuses of the face and allow bacteria from the nose and mouth to come into contact with the brain, causing a potential infection.
- In infants and young children, whose skull bones have not yet fused together, a skull fracture may cause a diastasis fracture, in which the bone junctions (called suture lines) widen.
- Fractures can be linear (literally a line in the bone) or stellate (a starburst like pattern) and the pattern of the break is associated with the type of force applied to the skull.
- Penetrating skull fractures describe injuries caused by an object entering the brain. This includes gunshot and stab wounds, and impaled objects to the head.
- A depressed skull fracture occurs when a piece of skull is pushed toward the inside of the skull (think of pressing in on a ping pong ball). Depending upon circumstances, surgery may be required to elevate the depressed fragment.
- It is important to know whether the fracture is open or closed (this describes the condition of the skin overlying the broken bone). An open fracture occurs when the skin is torn or lacerated over the fracture site. This increases the risk of infection, especially with a depressed skull fracture in which brain tissue is exposed. In a closed fracture, the skin is not damaged and continues to protect the underlying fracture from contamination from the outside world.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/4/2014
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