Brain Stem Damage: Why Does It Happen and What Are the Treatment Options?

Brain stem injury is a rare condition that can happen to anyone, regardless of age and health. It has a set of debilitating symptoms that can drastically decrease one’s quality of life. Fortunately, there are now plenty of rehabilitative treatment options that can help bring back the body’s lost functions and abilities.

Read on below as we discuss everything you need to know about brain stem damage, including its causes, symptoms, and specific treatment options.


What is a brain stem?

The brainstem is a stalk-like feature that can be found at the base part of the brain. Its primary function is to connect the brain to the spinal cord, sending signals from the brain to the rest of the body. 

The brainstem is a neural pathway made up of three regions: the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata. These regions consist of critical nerve bodies (e.g., cranial nerves) responsible for controlling the body’s subconscious functions. This includes the following:

  • Breathing
  • Heart rate and blood pressure
  • Consciousness
  • Sleep
  • Tear production
  • Balance or equilibrium
  • Motor commands, such as eye movement, facial expressions, swallowing, and chewing.
  • Reflexive actions, like sneezing, coughing, and vomiting

Therefore, preserving the integrity and health of the brainstem is of utmost importance since it regulates the body systems responsible for survival. 


What causes brain stem damage?

Brainstem damage usually occurs as a result of an underlying disorder or complications to one’s current medical condition. Some examples of diseases or conditions that can affect the brainstem include:


Encephalitis refers to the inflammation of the brain tissues caused by an infection or autoimmune disorder. When areas of the brain start swelling, it can put pressure on the brainstem and force it to push against the skull. As a result, the brainstem may sustain some injuries and get damaged over time.

The disease does not necessarily need to target the brainstem itself. It can affect other parts of the brain, which in turn, can affect the brainstem as its surroundings become inflamed. 

Brainstem or ischemic stroke 

An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot forms along the vessels that supply blood directly into the brainstem. This obstruction can cut off blood and oxygen supply to the brain, damaging the affected areas, including the brainstem. Over time, severe oxygen deprivation can lead to critical problems, such as comatose or brain death.

Brain tumor

A brain tumor refers to the irregular or abnormal growth of cells within the brain. Whether benign or malignant, brain tumors can cause severe damage to the brain since it’s growing inside a very restricted space. As it takes up space inside the skull, the tumor can increase the pressure inside and even push against the brainstem, causing neurological damage over time.

Furthermore, the tumor will also hog all the oxygen and nutrient supply in the brain, robbing the brainstem of such vital resources.

Traumatic brain injury

A traumatic brain injury happens when one sustains a violent bump, blow, or jolt to the head. It may also be the result of a foreign object penetrating the brain. Any of these can cause damage to the brain as it can cause a violent shift inside the skull, causing tissue damage or axonal injury.

Heart attack

This happens when an artery breaks, disrupting the healthy flow of blood into the heart. When the heart fails to pump oxygen into the brain, tissues and nerve cells will die, thus impairing the brainstem.

Damage to the brainstem can cause various symptoms that can be debilitating and life-threatening. Some injuries may instantly cause irreversible damage to the brainstem, which can then lead to brain death.


What are the signs and symptoms of a brain stem injury?

A brainstem damage can have varying symptoms depending on the cause of the injury and its severity. Some patients may also experience the physical manifestations immediately after the trauma, while others may take up to a few days before seeing the effects of the injury.  

Generally, patients with a damaged brain stem may experience one or more of the following:

  • Dizziness, nausea, vomiting
  • Balancing problems
  • Insomnia or abnormal sleeping patterns
  • Slurred speech
  • Problems in eating, swallowing, drinking, coughing, and gagging.
  • Breathing and respiratory problems
  • Inability to control movements
  • Heart rate irregularities
  • Loss of consciousness and confusion
  • Paralysis
  • Comatose

The brainstem controls the body’s vital functions and relays neurologic signals for other systems to function. So it’s no surprise that a damaged one can have crippling effects on almost every part of the body. 

Fortunately, it’s still possible to recover from such a condition with the right rehabilitation and treatment plan.


What are the treatment options for a damaged brain stem?

A damaged brainstem is considered an emergency and should be treated immediately. Generally, the doctor will provide emergency care first to address immediate concerns, such as oxygen treatment, stopping the bleeding, or stabilizing the neck.

The physician may also perform an emergency surgery to address the main cause of the brainstem injury. Some examples include the surgical removal of a blood clot, removing a tumor, or repairing a skull fracture.

Once the patient is stable, the next course of action is to undergo rehabilitation. Rehabilitative therapy allows patients to recover from the symptoms of their condition and regain their normal body functions. Plus, it will help them adapt to their new level of physical state and abilities.

Some forms of therapy that might be included in your treatment plan are:

  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Psychiatric and mental care services
  • Emotional and social support

During rehab, you will be working with various healthcare professionals who will assist you throughout your recovery journey. Once your normal body functions are restored, you may be advised to go home and continue rehabilitation at home. 


Brain Stem Damage

Where to find the best brain injury rehabilitation centers?

If you or a loved one needs a high-quality inpatient rehabilitative facility, then look no further.

NeuLife Rehab provides one of the best post acute rehab programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation. Our individualized programs and services are structured to meet the varying medical needs and desired goals. Every treatment plan we create aims to help patients achieve their highest level of independence and function. 

Contact our post acute rehabilitation center at 800-626-3876 to learn more about our diverse programs, such as 


We are more than happy to answer your questions and concerns. You can also schedule a tour.


The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.


Dedicated to providing the highest caliber of care to individuals with brain injuries, NeuLife Rehabilitation is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF).
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