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Neurofatigue After Brain Injury

The effects of neurofatigue are far reaching for someone recovering from a brain injury. The scientific community agrees on the fact that survivors are operating on a battery that is much smaller compared to everyone else. Therefore, for a brain injury survivor this translates in having to operate in battery saving mode quite often. Like an older phone battery, your levels of energy are also likely to decrease much faster. I found that the concept of neurofatigue is one that takes a little while to understand. The first step to understanding it fully is to avoid any sort of comparisons between the levels of energy of the old you versus the new you. Comparing both is point blank irrelevant and counter-productive. The operating manual of your Weird Wonderful Brain is completely different and therefore, putting your brain under too much stress is likely to result into set-backs. Whether those are mild or severe, I personally always find set-backs to be heart breaking and soul crushing.

What does neurofatigue look like?

I always really struggle to explain neurofatigue to others. In my experience, neurofatigue is way worse than physical fatigue. An afternoon nap or a good night sleep often isn’t enough to bounce back from mental exertion. To put it simply, nothing makes sense when your brain runs out of energy and the physical effects soon kick in too. The physical and mental effects can include some of the following:

Woman sitting on a couch and holding her head as fatigue sets in.

  • Absence of mental clarity aka brain fog or fuzzy brain,

  • Reduced cognitive functions (concentration, attention, processing time, memory, etc),

  • Slower reaction time,

  • Energy slumps,

  • General fatigue,

  • Muscle weakness (reduce grip strength, coordination, balance, etc.)

  • Sleep that isn’t refreshing,

  • Emotional lability e.g. easily irritable,

  • Extreme exhaustion after physical or mental activity and

  • Feeling generally yak and unwell! 

Each brain injury is different so depending on who you talk to, I’m sure other items could be added to this list. The neurofatigue symptoms that one experienced strongly, may be experienced to a lesser degree for someone else...remember, no two brain injuries are the same.

How do you manage neurofatigue?

The key words to lessen the effects of neurofatigue are “fatigue” & “management”. Fatigue management is one of your main ally to manage neurofatigue. However, if your battery has dropped to levels that are dangerously low, know that, even with the best fatigue management strategies, it may take you several days/weeks for your brain to recover sufficiently to avoid experiencing some of its debilitating effects. 

What are some of the key fatigue management strategies?

There is only one way to find out which strategies work best for you...trial and error. Below are some of the best known fatigue management strategies:

  • Plan ahead and make decisions around where you want to spend your energy. This has to be based around your current levels of energy else you’ll constantly remain in deficit.

  • Pace yourself, if you know your day is shaping up to be busy, make sure you allow yourself little breaks or room to rest the following day. 

  • Look at your sleep patterns and implement sleep routines that will enable you to increase your recharging efforts. This may lead you to modifying your bedtime routines or including afternoon naps. Remember that brain recovery is maximised while you are sleeping.

  • Include gentler forms of exercise into your daily routine. Strenuous exercise is likely to drain your battery further. Try yoga, stretching, relaxation, meditation, gentle short walks and slowly increase the duration/distances.

  • Avoid sensory overstimulation as it is taxing on an injured brain. Remember your brain is now more sensitive to any stimuli.

  • Avoid stress as it robs you of precious energy and increases the rate at which your battery will drain out.

  • Take lots of little breaks to allow your brain to recharge. Deep breathing, a pause outside to get some fresh air and bringing your mind into the present moment (mindfulness) are great examples of how you can allow yourself a little break. 

  • Set realistic expectations. That can be very hard to achieve until you gain some acceptance around what the new you can do, but you’ll slowly get there.

  • Be kind to yourself.

  • Pay attention to the food and drinks that you are feeding your body. When you experience intense fatigue, it’s easy to fall into unhealthy eating habits. Simple tweaks can help increase your energy levels and avoid boom and bust situations.

Remember, neurofatigue compounds. Even though you may get through a day much better than expected, it can still catch up on you. Don’t wait until your battery has gone flat before implementing fatigue management strategies as you are likely to take longer to bounce back. Fatigue management is all about consistency.

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My daughter contracted encephalitis in August 2020. Still on the long road to recovery. This information is amazing and super useful. Thank you. 😊

Veronique Theberge
Veronique Theberge
May 16, 2022
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My pleasure!

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