A brain injury does not necessarily mean a blunt force trauma, such as whiplash from a car accident or a workplace slip and fall. A brain injury can also involve a lack of oxygen sent to the brain.
When there is oxygen deprivation for more than a few minutes, you can experience what is called anoxic brain injuries or hypoxic brain injuries.
- Anoxic brain injuries are when the brain has no oxygen. This can occur from cardiac arrest, choking, strangulation, and any of a wide variety of sudden injuries.
- Hypoxic brain injuries are when the brain is not completely deprived of oxygen but is only receiving some of the oxygen it needs to survive.
How Is Oxygen Carried To The Brain?
The brain needs oxygen to perform conscious and autonomic processes. In fact, the brain utilizes roughly 20 percent of the body’s total oxygen supply. Cutting it off can have very serious consequences.
How oxygen and the brain work is simple. Oxygen is carried to the brain through red blood cells. They move from the lungs through the cardiovascular system and up to the brain as well as through the rest of the body. Something like a blood clot can block the flow of oxygen to the brain. A major bleeding wound can cause shortages in the oxygen that’s able to be moved to the brain. These are not the only causes.
What Causes Lack Of Oxygen To The Brain?
To understand what can cause a lack of oxygen to the brain, these fall into the ‘anoxic’ and ‘hypoxic’ categories.
For an anoxic brain injury, the cause has to cut off oxygen altogether. A blood clot or stroke does this. A severe asthma attack, going into cardiac or respiratory arrest, suffocation, carbon monoxide poisoning or toxic smoke inhalation, a drug overdose or poisoning, an intense electric shock, or extremely low blood pressure tied to blood loss or disrupted cardiac functioning can cause oxygen to not be sent to the brain.
Under a hypoxic brain injury, the causes are quite similar. A blood clot or stroke can reduce the oxygen to the brain, as can carbon monoxide poisoning, smoke inhalation, and any blockage of the airway. High altitudes and pressure or compression of the trachea are also causes. Certain physical conditions that prevent movement of the breathing muscles, such as paralysis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), can also be a cause.
A common cause of hypoxic brain injury is also drowning. Even in shallow water, if someone is rendered unconscious and goes under they will experience oxygen deprivation immediately. Whether it’s a hotel pool, lake, public pool, or a water park, many drowning victims who survive having experienced a lack of oxygen reaching their brain sustain permanent neurological and psychological damage.
What Happens When Your Brain Doesn’t Get Enough Oxygen
How long a brain can survive without oxygen varies. If there is a limited supply of oxygen, a person’s brain can carry on longer than if the supply was cut off altogether.
The unfortunate truth is that the brain’s cells are very sensitive. If they’re denied oxygen, in 5 minutes or less, they start to die. This is brain hypoxia and will rapidly cause brain damage and eventually death. Any extended period without or with limited oxygen, apoptosis sets in and immense numbers of brain cells start to die simultaneously. Although we as human beings lose brain cells throughout our lives, when this occurs so quickly it can lead to diminished functioning and/or brain death.
As this is occurring, if you are the person experiencing it, a number of side effects and symptoms of your brain not having enough oxygen set in. Hallucinations and delusions are common. Reported near-death experiences are often tied to a lack of oxygen in the brain as well as elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the blood which is itself toxic in above-average concentrations.
Timeline Of How Long A Person Can Survive Without Oxygen
- Within 15 seconds. When oxygen supply is interrupted to the brain, such as with a drug overdose or cardiac arrest, consciousness is lost within the first 15 seconds.
- 30 seconds or under. Although it varies from person to person, if your brain loses oxygen strictly for a few seconds, you are unlikely to occur long-term brain damage.
- Within 1-2 minutes. It is at this point where brain damage can begin. The extent of that damage relies on multiple factors, including a person’s age, health background, and previous brain injuries.
- At the 5-minute mark. When a person has been deprived of oxygen for 5 minutes, brain cells are beginning to die and severe brain damage is starting to set in.
- After 10 minutes. Unfortunately, once ten minutes or more have passed, death is more likely. If it hasn’t already, the brain will slip into a coma and the damage done is not healable.
- After 15 minutes. Any sort of recovery is impossible.
The exact amount of time a person can withstand a lack of oxygen to the brain will vary from person to person. It can be as little as 3 minutes. Comparatively, for others, they may be able to withstand up to 6 minutes without oxygen.
If you train your body to be efficient with minimal oxygen consumption, a person can also elongate how long they can last without a fresh oxygen supply.
Symptoms of Your Brain Deprived Of Oxygen
Mild symptoms of oxygen deprivation can include things like memory loss and problems with movement or motor functioning. More severe cases of a brain deprived of oxygen will typically see symptoms such as a seizure and brain death, heart fluctuations, and more. A person may also experience the following during the event or after.
- An inability to speak clearly.
- Delusions, an inability to make judgments, and/or an inability to recognize and be aware of their surroundings.
- Difficulty learning new information or, alternatively, problems remembering and recalling names and events.
- An inability to follow directions or to perform complex tasks.
- A struggle to keep hands or feet sturdy and/or to produce movement in the way they once did.
- An inability to coordinate motor skills, such as having trouble writing or difficulty walking.
- An inability to think clearly, sometimes seeing visible hallucinations, sports, or multiple vision.
- A dramatic personality change and/or frequent mood swings.
- The brain may be left unable to process pain signals correctly, causing a person chronic pain and/or for there to be a feeling of pain somewhere where there is not an obvious injury.
- Impulsive behaviour that can be hyper-aggressive, inappropriate for the environment, or sexual.
- The development of depression, anxiety, or similar mental health disorders.
- Sudden, rapid aging of the brain, similar to dementia and resulting in very similar symptoms.
How To Treat Lack of Oxygen To The Brain
A lack of oxygen to the brain is a medical emergency. Treatment is required immediately. It is a must to resume oxygen supply to the brain with as little delay as possible, to prevent serious complications.
In the immediate, treatment starts with basic life support. This is to do a few things. The first is to establish a pathway to provide oxygen to the brain and to saturate the blood with oxygen. Secondly, the respiratory and cardiovascular systems need to be properly supported to successfully get the body’s systems aligned again and back on track.
The long-term consequences of the damage tie back to how long a brain was without oxygen. There are some people who will need very little and that are capable of making more or less a complete recovery. For other people, however, they could looking at years of rehabilitative therapy.
The fortunate thing is that the brain is highly adaptive, particularly to challenges. A treatment plan may include a variety of activities to activate and engage the brain. This might include an exercise plan to help increase blood flow, physical therapy to aid with motor functioning, psychotherapy to aid with the mental health component of a brain injury, occupational therapy, support groups, and speech therapy to recover speech and language,
In a lot of cases, damage is done to specific areas of the brain. This means that although oxygen deprivation can take away something like the ability to speak, a person can still be able to understand language. There are a lot of cases where unexpected changes or restrictions are evident seemingly without much of a pattern. These changes can be temporary but are often permanent.
The details of a long-term recovery and care plan are unique to the person, situation, and symptoms that they are experiencing. Recovery from an anoxic or hypoxic brain injury is typically difficult.
How A Brain Injury Lawyer Can Help You Or Your Loved One
The aftermath of oxygen deprivation and brain damage can be overwhelming and downright frightening. If you or a loved one has suffered a brain injury that caused the brain to go without oxygen due to someone else’s negligence, we want to hear from you. Whether it’s tied to a drowning accident, a spinal cord injury, or something else, an injured victim deserves the treatment and support they are owed. Contact a brain injury lawyer today to speak with an expert who can inform you of your legal options.