What You Need to Know About Cerebral Hypoxia

Cerebral hypoxia, aka brain hypoxia, is a condition caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain. Without a continuous flow of sufficient oxygen to that all-important organ, brain cells may begin to die in just five minutes. That can result in serious consequences, up to and including brain death. The severity of the damage from cerebral hypoxia is determined by the length of time the brain goes without enough oxygen and how drastically the flow is reduced.

Who May Develop Brain Hypoxia?

Some people are more at risk for cerebral hypoxia than others. Athletes such as football players and boxers that are more prone to head injuries are included in that number, as are divers and swimmers who may hold their breath for extended periods of time. Mountain climbers are also vulnerable to hypoxia.

Another at risk group are those who suffer from certain medical conditions such as asthma, low blood pressure, and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) which causes deterioration of nerves in the spinal cord and brain. Emphysema and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are two other conditions which can cause hypoxia.

In reality, however, anyone may suffer a hypoxic brain injury, just like anyone can have a heart attack. The process may be slow and gradual or, as is often the case, may happen suddenly without warning, depending on what’s causing the lack of oxygen to the brain.

Symptoms of Cerebral Hypoxia

A variety of factors may cause a lack of oxygen to the brain. Depending on how great the cut in oxygen flow is, the hypoxia symptoms may range from mild to severe. For instance, if someone faints for a moment but regains consciousness quickly, they may suffer a mild case of hypoxia. If so, the hypoxia symptoms they display could include:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Temporary loss of memory
  • Incoordination

More severe symptoms of hypoxia include:

  • Seizures
  • Unresponsiveness (coma)
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Respiratory failure
  • Brain death
  • Pupils unresponsive when exposed to light

If you or another person shows symptoms of hypoxia, speed is of the essence. Seek medical attention immediately.

What Causes Cerebral Hypoxia?

A number of conditions can be the catalyst for hypoxia. Sometimes anemia prevents enough oxygen from flowing through the bloodstream and reaching the brain. Another cause may be a severe asthma attack, which makes breathing in oxygen difficult. People who travel to high altitudes (over 8,000 feet) may suffer from a lack of oxygen to the brain. Other causes may include:

  • Stroke
  • Irregular heart beats
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Choking
  • Strangulation
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Drowning
  • Smoke inhalation
  • Severe hypotension (low blood pressure)
  • Head trauma
  • Complications from anesthesia

Treatment for Hypoxic Brain Injury

To regain as much function as possible, the patient may need rehabilitation to help relearn everyday skills. This will probably involve a team of specialists.

The physical therapist helps to sharpen motor skills like walking or regaining body movements. The sooner this therapy starts, the better, because movement helps keep the muscles from atrophying, which can result from being unused over a long period of time. 

The occupational therapist assists with relearning everyday tasks such as cooking or dressing. He also works to improve memory and reasoning skills to make more independent living easier.

The speech therapist helps improve communication skills and can show you how to help the patient work on those skills when he visits your home.

The neuropsychologist evaluates the condition of the patient and prescribes the therapies needed. He is also helpful dealing with behavioral or emotional difficulties that may occur.

The Prognosis for a Victim of Cerebral Hypoxia

The prognosis for someone who has suffered a severe case of cerebral hypoxia is often unpredictable. Much depends on the cause of the condition and how long the flow of oxygen to the brain was diminished. As a general rule, the more serious the cause of the hypoxic brain injury, or the longer time the patient was unconscious, the more difficult recovery will be and the less likely normal functioning will return completely.

How Can You Help Someone with a Hypoxic Brain Injury?

If someone you love has suffered a hypoxic brain injury, be prepared for a long, slow battle back. This can be a trying, frustrating period for both the victim and the family. You need to remain as patient as possible and take an active part in the treatment plan. Get acquainted with the members of the treatment team and familiarize yourself with what each of them does. Ask them how you can help, what the realistic expectations are, and the most optimistic outlook.

Stay involved. Become a part of the treatment team, so you don’t feel left out and uninformed and to let the professionals know that someone is constantly watching out for the patient’s welfare.

Show your love and support. Motivation is critical to the recovery outcome and knowing they are loved and supported can help provide a patient with the inner strength necessary to keep fighting to make progress.

Celebrate each and every positive step. Take joy in little things, like the patient being able to hold a fork properly or put on their shoes without assistance. The road to recovery is filled with tiny steps and each one deserves to be applauded.

Take care of yourself. Though it may be difficult, try to get enough sleep and eat a proper diet so you remain strong and healthy. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and take advantage of assistance programs available to caregivers. After all, you are the most important person on your loved one’s recovery team.