What You Need to Know About Post-Traumatic Amnesia After a Head Injury

You might have seen it in movies or on television: A character wakes up in the hospital after an accident and has no idea who they are or what happened to them.

Your idea about amnesia, or loss of memory, may come from its depiction on screen, but it is important to know that memory impairment is one of the effects of a concussion or brain injury and not limited to dramatic plot points. People with amnesia typically don’t forget their identities, but if you know someone who was in a car accident or involved in a collision while playing sports, the head injury could result in post-traumatic amnesia.

UNC Health physical medicine and rehabilitation physician Kevin Carneiro, DO, explains the condition and how it’s treated.

What is post-traumatic amnesia?

Post-traumatic amnesia happens after an injury to the head. It can involve the inability to remember events that took place before the event that caused amnesia (called retrograde amnesia) or the inability to remember new information after the event (called anterograde amnesia). It can also be a combination of both.

“People with post-traumatic amnesia tend to be unable to remember the injury itself, as well as a short period of time before or after the trauma,” Dr. Carneiro says. “This memory loss may be a protective mechanism by the brain, as it may be easier to not remember that moment of the trauma.”

The extent of what’s forgotten may vary from person to person, but Dr. Carneiro says some form of memory loss is a common part of a brain injury.

“The severity of the injury doesn’t matter,” he says. “We can see memory loss after minor incidents.”

Post-traumatic amnesia is usually accompanied by concussion symptoms, including balance issues, vision problems, dizziness, neck pain, headaches, an inability to think clearly, and changes in mood such as depression and irritability.

How is post-traumatic amnesia treated?

A person’s experience of post-traumatic amnesia is usually short and does not require treatment.

“People tend to regain their memory, though it’s common to never remember the moment of injury,” Dr. Carneiro says. “Memories typically come back in a few days. For some people, it’s a few hours, and for others, it could be a few weeks or a few months.”

Everyone’s recovery from a concussion or head injury is different. In the days after a concussion, it’s important to rest. Moderate exercise is also helpful, as it improves mood and sleep. Typically, most concussion symptoms, including memory impairment, resolve within two weeks for adults and four weeks for children and teens; if symptoms persist, therapy is available.

After a few days of rest, many people return to school or work. They may continue to experience anterograde amnesia, making it difficult to retain information taught in school or shared on the job. Friends and family may notice the person misplacing things and forgetting names or recent conversations.

“If someone is having prolonged issues with memory, an occupational therapist could work with them on memory skills and recall,” Dr. Carneiro says. “When we have students in this situation, a therapist can give them some strategies for completing their schoolwork and memorizing new information.”

During recovery, some people may need to find additional ways to keep themselves organized. It can be helpful to set reminders and alarms on a phone to remember appointments or tasks, or to keep a notebook for writing down new information.

How can I support someone with post-traumatic amnesia?

It’s scary to see a loved one struggle with memory lapses after a brain injury, and it can also become frustrating for caregivers, friends and family members to repeat information. Dr. Carneiro says reassurance and patience are key.

“Don’t be alarmed by a person’s memory issues after a brain injury,” he says. “Know that this is a common symptom. Encourage them to seek treatment, and during recovery, you can help them recall memories by talking through what they remember.”

Dr. Carneiro says the invisible nature of memory impairment makes it especially difficult.

“Memory loss is not like a knee injury, which is obvious and easy to explain,” he says. “It’s frustrating and fatiguing to see people you don’t immediately recognize or to struggle in your studies or work. It’s important to give the person grace and know that this issue may take time.”

Concerned about a loved one’s symptoms after a head injury? Talk to a doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.