A blow to the head can cause serious and persistent injuries to the brain. Cells can be damaged if the blow causes the brain to rattle about inside the skull, and sometimes, head injuries are so severe that brain cells die due to blunt trauma or a lack of oxygen.
According to the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1.7 million injuries like this take place in the United States each year.
When the brain is injured in this manner, it’s common for amnesia to follow. The brain needs time to heal, and as it does, it may not be able to keep track of the events that are unfolding. The brain might not even be able to remember the events that took place in the past. Memory loss like this can be troubling, but it’s often transient, as long as people get the proper help. Memory loss that stems from another disorder, however, might be harder to diagnose, and this kind of amnesia disorder might be a little more difficult to treat.
When experts discuss amnesia, they’re typically excluding memory loss that takes hold with advancing age. As brain cells age and toxins build up, it can become more and more difficult for the brain to store new information and retrieve old data. But people who have disorders like this also have other symptoms of brain deterioration, including an inability to concentrate and learn new information. They may struggle with memory, but there are other brain health symptoms in play at the same time.
By contrast, people who have amnesia disorders may have no difficulties with other aspects of cognitive function. They can pay attention, speak clearly and pass all sorts of tests of intelligence. But they may be unable to perform basic tasks involving memory.
Some people with memory loss like this cannot learn new information.
They cannot hang on to memories of events that just took place, so they’re unable to learn how to tackle a task in a step-by-step fashion. Some people, on the other hand, are quite capable of learning new information and creating new memories. But these people may be unable to describe the things that have happened to them in the past. All of their memories might be erased, or they might have only a short bit of the past removed from their brain cells.
Some people who struggle with amnesia are clearly impaired, as they may not be able to answer questions about their names, their homes and their past. But some people live with symptoms of amnesia for long periods of time without arousing the suspicion of the people around them. If questioned at length, the symptoms might become clear, but casual acquaintances may have no idea that a memory disorder is in play.
Causes of Amnesia Disorders
According to the Mayo Clinic, amnesia caused by neurological disorders could take hold in people who:
- Experience a stroke or a seizure
- Contract an infection that causes swelling in the brain
- Survive a heart attack or carbon monoxide poisoning
- Develop tumors in the brain
Amnesia can also take hold in people who are dealing with an addictive disorder. People who drink alcohol, for example, may experience periodic episodes of amnesia during the times in which they’re intoxicated. People like this can also experience a more severe form of amnesia after years of alcohol abuse, as their brain cells might be damaged due to a depletion of thiamin.
People who have some forms of mental illness might also develop amnesia. For example, people who go through an episode that’s both frightening and life-threatening may find that their memories of the events that took place are foggy or just absent. They may remember the happenings that led up to the event, and they may remember what they did in the moments that follow, but they may not have an accurate memory of the event. People like this have amnesia, but they might also have post-traumatic stress disorder.
While amnesia can sometimes form alongside other mental illnesses, some people develop disorders that seem to share vital characteristics with amnesia disorders, even though clinicians might not diagnose amnesia. For example, people who have depression sometimes experience such distress that they cannot focus and pay attention. As a result, it might seem as though these people have amnesia, as they cannot answer questions about where they have been and what they have learned, and they may not be able to accurately describe what has happened in the past. These people are struggling with concentration, not amnesia, but the symptoms can be similar.
People who have anxiety disorders might also seem as though they have amnesia, as they might also be unable to focus on the present and accurately describe the events of the day. Rather than living the life in the moment, people like this might be trapped by their memories, and they might be physically unable to make new memories due to their lack of concentration. Again, this might seem like amnesia, but a different disorder is in play.
Some people who have amnesia are able to function quite well in the world, but there are some people who get into deep trouble due to their inability to access accurate memories. For example, in an article in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, researchers outline the case of a woman who experienced amnesia in response to a very stressful situation at home. The woman wandered away with no memories of her name and her home, and she remained in this fugue state for a year until her family sent a missing person’s alert to the local police.
People with severe memory loss like this can develop entirely new lives in response to their memory loss, and they might leave their families behind in the process.
Similarly, people who cannot remember the details of a stressful situation may only be able to process what has happened through:
- Unexplained physical sensations (such as rapid heart rate and sweating)
If they could tap into their memories, they could work through their emotional responses and leave their anxiety behind. But with the amnesia in place, people like this may be unable to really think through what has happened and what they might need to do in order to heal.
Obviously, people who have amnesia might also fall prey to very real hazards involving their personal security. They might not be able to head home when the skies are dark, as they may not know where their homes are located. They might not be able to avoid dangerous people, as they may have no memories of the trauma they’ve endured in the past. This kind of danger can remain, until people get help and get their memories back.
Help for Amnesia
Some types of memory loss are best handled by medical teams. People who have head injuries, brain tumors and other physical ailments may find that they’re able to make new memories and process old ones when their underlying health concerns are addressed in a comprehensive manner. Sometimes the therapies don’t even have to be invasive in order to be helpful. For example, in an article in Brain, researchers suggest that 75 percent of people who have amnesia due to alcohol can regain their memories with vitamin therapies and a strict avoidance of alcohol. Medical providers can handle this kind of care, and the relief provided can be very real.
But some types of amnesia are best handled in a Dual Diagnosis program, in which the person’s mental health disorder is addressed alongside any substance abuse issues that accompany it.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, might need therapies that help them to deal with anxiety and nervousness, alongside therapies that can help them find healthy ways to stop symptoms, rather than masking them with drugs or alcohol.
Some people also need help to deal with their mental health concerns so they won’t have symptoms that seem to mimic amnesia. People like this who also struggle with substance abuse might best be treated in a Dual Diagnosis program too, as experts who work in these programs are adept at determining what lies beneath a set of symptoms a person displays. If you’d like to find a program like this in order to help someone you love, please call us. We’d love to hear more about the symptoms the person is facing, and with that information, we can help you to find a program that can help. Please call.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton