Brain injuries are complicated. Each region of the brain is responsible for controlling various parts of your body. Some regions of the brain allow you to process sensations, while others can contribute to different aspects of your personality.

The brain stem lies at the base of the brain. It connects the brain to the spinal cord and controls some of the body’s most basic functions. An injury to the brain stem could cause life-long problems or even death.

Here are some things you should know about the causes and effects of brain stem injuries.

Brain Anatomy

The brain stem rests at the intersection of the spinal cord, cerebrum, and cerebellum. It is responsible for controlling nerve signals that are passed from the body to the brain.

The brain stem also receives sensory information from the body. It passes those sensory signals to the cerebrum, which uses them to make decisions and create emotional reactions.

Brain Stem Function

In addition to its role as a waypoint for nerve signals to and from the brain, the brain stem also controls many of the body’s involuntary functions. Your brain stem controls your heartbeat, ability to swallow, respiration, and blood pressure.

Because of its role in controlling involuntary functions, injuries to the brain stem can have serious consequences, including death and coma. Brain stem injuries can also result in partial or complete paralysis.

Common Types of Brain Stem Injuries

Doctors categorize brain injuries according to the type of trauma you experience. 

Blunt Trauma

Blunt trauma occurs when a force impacts the head. The brain strikes the skull hard enough to cause bleeding and bruising, which is also referred to as a contusion. If the brain does not strike the skull hard enough to bruise, the pressure of the fluid surrounding the brain can cause a concussion.

Penetrating Trauma

Penetrating trauma happens when an object penetrates the brain. The object often tears the brain tissue and causes bleeding.

Blast Trauma

Explosions create a pressure wave. This pressure wave can cause the brain to swell, bleed, and bruise.

Pressure Trauma

Pressure often occurs as a secondary brain injury. When the brain bleeds and swells, the pressure on the brain can damage brain tissue.

Diffuse Axonal Injury (DAI)

DAI happens when the head experiences rough shaking. Other names for DAI include shaken baby syndrome and coup-contrecoup injury. The rough shaking can bruise the brain, but can also tear the brain tissue.

Causes of Brain Stem Injuries

Any accident that involves an impact to the head can cause a brain stem injury. Any head trauma that causes swelling and bleeding can trigger a pressure injury to the brain stem.

Some examples of incidents that can lead to brain stem injuries include:

These situations can produce a brain injury through one or more of the mechanisms listed above. For example, an explosion can cause blunt trauma, pressure trauma, and penetrating trauma simultaneously.

Short-Term Effects of Brain Stem Injuries

You may experience some short-term effects after a brain stem injury. Symptoms of a mild concussion or contusion to the brain stem can clear up in a few weeks.

Nausea and Dizziness

Nausea is a common symptom of a mild brain injury. The vestibular system is the network of sensory organs that help you to maintain your balance. The brain stem is a key part of the vestibular system. A brain stem injury can cause you to feel nauseous and dizzy by disrupting your sense of balance.

Abnormal Sleep

The brain stem plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle. When the brain stem has been injured, you can suffer from insomnia, fatigue, and sleepiness.


Any change in the brain can lead to a headache. A head injury that caused the brain injury can also contribute to the development of headaches.

Long-Term Consequences of Brain Stem Injuries

Some effects of brain stem injuries can persist over a longer period of time. These symptoms usually result from a significant disruption of the brain stem.

Slurred Speech

The nerves that control the tongue, pharynx, and larynx pass through the brain stem. Loss of sensation and control can disrupt speech and the sense of taste.

Difficulty Eating and Swallowing

The trigeminal nerve runs through the brain stem. This nerve controls the jaw and facial muscles. Damage to the brain stem can also cause chewing problems.

The brain stem also controls the muscles in the mouth and throat. When the brain stem is damaged, swallowing can become painful or difficult.

Loss of Balance and Coordination

A brain stem injury can disrupt the nerves that connect the body to the cerebellum. Without these nerve signals, the brain does not know where the body is positioned and the body does not know how to move to maintain balance.

Unconsciousness or Coma

Pressure on the brain stem can cause irregular brain function. This irregularity can result in a loss of consciousness, or in severe cases, coma.

Facial Paralysis

The facial nerves pass through the brain stem. Facial paralysis can occur when these nerves cannot transmit their signals.

Hearing Loss

The nerves that carry signals from the ears to the brain pass through the brain stem. Damage to these nerves can lead to hearing loss.

Motor Paralysis

The brain stem contains the nerves that carry signals from the brain to the body. When these nerves are disrupted, you might experience paralysis, loss of sensation, and numbness in your body.


Because of the significant role that the brain stem plays in regulating the body’s involuntary systems — like your heartbeat, breathing, and blood pressure — a brain stem injury can cause death.

Compensation for Brain Stem Injuries

The severe consequences of brain stem injuries may justify large damage awards or settlements. Compensation should be appropriate to cover injuries that could substantially affect you for the rest of your life.