Neurology Insights: Understanding the Most Common Types and Causes of Head Injuries

Doctor and surgeon examining x-ray film of patient 's head for brain, skull or eye injury. Medical diagnosis and surgical treatment concept.

Head injuries are a significant concern in the field of neurology. They can range from mild bumps to severe traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) that can have lasting effects on an individual’s cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being. In this blog, we will delve into the most common types of head injuries and their primary causes.

Common Head Injuries


A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a sudden jolt, blow, or bump to the head, or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth. This sudden movement can cause the brain to bounce or twist within the skull, leading to chemical changes in the brain and sometimes stretching or damaging brain cells. Symptoms of a concussion can vary and may include headaches, confusion, dizziness, nausea, and temporary memory loss. While concussions are often referred to as mild brain injuries because they are usually not life-threatening, their effects can be serious and long-lasting, necessitating prompt medical attention and proper management.


A cerebral contusion is a specific type of traumatic brain injury characterized by bruising and bleeding within the brain tissue. It arises from a direct impact or blow to the head, causing the brain to collide with the rough inner surface of the skull. This collision results in damaged blood vessels and localized bleeding, leading to the formation of a bruise on the affected area of the brain. Symptoms of a cerebral contusion can vary based on the injury’s severity and location but may include headaches, dizziness, confusion, and neurological deficits. Due to the potential for swelling and increased intracranial pressure, cerebral contusions require prompt medical attention to ensure appropriate treatment and monitoring.

Coup-Contrecoup Injury

A coup-contrecoup injury is a specific type of traumatic brain injury that involves damage to the brain at two distinct sites: the point of direct impact and the opposite side. The term “coup” refers to the injury at the site where the head was struck, while “contrecoup” denotes the injury on the opposite side of the brain. This dual injury occurs when a forceful blow causes the brain to first collide with the inner surface of the skull at the impact site and then rebound, causing it to strike the opposite side of the skull. The resulting injuries can lead to contusions or bruises on both sides of the brain. Coup-contrecoup injuries are often seen in car accidents, falls, or violent shakes and can be indicative of the force and direction of the trauma. Due to the potential for extensive brain damage, these injuries necessitate immediate medical evaluation and intervention.

Diffuse Axonal Injury

A diffuse axonal injury (DAI) is a severe form of traumatic brain injury that arises from the rapid acceleration or deceleration of the brain within the skull. Unlike focal brain injuries, which are localized to a specific area, DAI affects a widespread area of the brain. It is characterized by the shearing or tearing of the brain’s long connecting nerve fibers, known as axons, due to the differential movement of the brain’s soft tissue layers. This shearing disrupts the brain’s regular communication and chemical processes, leading to a cascade of events that can result in swelling, further axonal damage, and even death. Symptoms of DAI can range from mild dizziness or nausea to profound unconsciousness or coma. Given its diffuse nature and the potential for significant neurological impairment, DAI is considered one of the most devastating types of traumatic brain injuries and requires immediate medical attention.

Skull Fracture

A skull fracture refers to a break or crack in one or more of the bones of the skull, often resulting from a direct blow or impact to the head. Depending on the nature and force of the trauma, skull fractures can vary in severity, ranging from simple hairline cracks to more complex fractures where bone fragments may penetrate the brain. There are four primary types of skull fractures: linear (a straight-line break), depressed (where the bone is pushed inward), diastatic (which affects the sutures of the skull, commonly seen in infants), and basilar (a fracture at the base of the skull). Symptoms can include pain, swelling, bruising, bleeding, and in severe cases, neurological deficits or cerebrospinal fluid leakage. Due to the potential for underlying brain injury and complications, any suspected skull fracture warrants immediate medical evaluation and intervention.

Penetrating Injury

A penetrating head injury, often referred to as an open head injury, occurs when an external object pierces the skull and breaches the brain tissue. Unlike closed head injuries, where the skull remains intact, penetrating injuries involve a direct violation of the cranial cavity. Common causes include gunshot wounds, stab wounds, or severe trauma from sharp objects like shrapnel. These injuries can lead to immediate damage to the affected brain areas, causing neurological deficits, bleeding, and swelling. Additionally, the risk of infection is heightened due to the introduction of foreign materials and potential exposure of the brain to environmental contaminants. Symptoms can vary based on the injury’s location and extent but may include severe headache, loss of consciousness, seizures, and focal neurological impairments. Given the grave nature of penetrating head injuries, they necessitate urgent medical attention and often surgical intervention to remove foreign objects and repair the damage.

Common Causes of Head Injuries:

The most common causes of head injuries include:

  • Falls: These are especially prevalent among the elderly, due to factors like poor vision, balance issues, and weakened muscles, and among young children, who are still developing motor skills.
  • Vehicle-related collisions: This encompasses car accidents, motorcycle crashes, bicycle accidents, and pedestrian collisions. Such incidents can result in a range of head injuries, from mild concussions to severe traumatic brain injuries.
  • Sports and recreational activities: Contact sports like football, rugby, boxing, and hockey, as well as activities like skateboarding and cycling, pose a significant risk of head injuries, especially if protective gear like helmets isn’t used.
  • Violence: This includes physical assaults, gunshot wounds, and domestic violence. Blows to the head, whether from fists, weapons, or other objects, can lead to various head injuries.
  • Work-related injuries: Certain occupations, especially those in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture, carry a higher risk of head injuries due to falls from heights, machinery accidents, or falling objects.
  • Explosive blasts and combat injuries: Military personnel are at risk from blasts, which can result in traumatic brain injuries even without a direct blow to the head.
  • Self-harm: In some tragic cases, individuals may inflict harm upon themselves, leading to head injuries.

It’s worth noting that while some head injuries can be minor, others can have long-term consequences, making prevention and immediate medical attention crucial.

Prevention Tips:

Preventing head injuries is crucial given their potential severity and long-term consequences. Here are some general strategies and measures to reduce the risk of head injuries:

Wear Protective Gear:

Always wear appropriate helmets when participating in activities like cycling, skateboarding, motorcycling, skiing, snowboarding, and contact sports. Ensure that the helmet fits properly and meets safety standards.

Seat Belts and Child Safety: 

Always wear a seatbelt when driving or riding in a vehicle. Ensure that children are in age-appropriate car seats and that they are correctly installed.

Fall Prevention at Home:

  • Install handrails on staircases.
  • Use non-slip mats in the bathroom.
  • Ensure adequate lighting, especially in areas like stairwells.
  • Keep floors free from clutter.
  • For the elderly, consider balance training exercises and physical therapy.

Safe Play for Children: 

Ensure playground equipment is well-maintained and has soft landing areas like sand or rubber. Supervise children during play.

Safe Driving:

  • Avoid driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Follow traffic rules and avoid distractions like texting while driving.
  • Use helmets on motorcycles and bicycles.

Work Safety:

  • Wear hard hats in construction or industrial settings.
  • Follow safety guidelines and training protocols.
  • Ensure machinery is well-maintained and that workers are trained in its use.

Sports Safety:

  • Use protective headgear and other safety equipment.
  • Follow safe techniques and guidelines.
  • Ensure proper supervision and coaching.

Prevent Violence:

  • Learn conflict resolution techniques.
  • Stay aware of surroundings.
  • Seek help or counseling if in a violent relationship.

Home Safety Measures:

  • Secure heavy furniture to prevent tipping.
  • Install window guards to prevent falls.
  • Use safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs for young children.

Military and Law Enforcement: 

Ensure proper training and use of protective gear during operations and in conflict zones.

Education and Awareness: 

Promote public awareness campaigns about the importance of head injury prevention.

While it’s impossible to prevent all head injuries, taking these precautions can significantly reduce the risk and severity of injury.

In Conclusion

Understanding the types and causes of head injuries is crucial for prevention and appropriate treatment. If you or someone you know experiences a head injury, it’s essential to seek medical attention immediately, even if the injury seems minor. Early intervention can significantly impact the outcome and recovery process. Stay safe and always prioritize your neurological health.

Headshot of Premier Neurology & Wellness Center Practitioner Kashouty

Dr. Kashouty, a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), practices general neurology with fellowship trained specialization in clinical neurophysiology. Dr. Kashouty finds the form and function of the nerves and muscles the most interesting part of neurology, which is what led him to specialize in neurophysiology with more emphasis on neuromuscular conditions. He treats all neurological diseases, but his main focus is to treat and manage headaches, movement disorders and neuromuscular diseases.