What are the Symptoms of Brain Stem Damage?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The symptoms of brain stem damage vary, depending on the intensity of the injury, and can span a range from mild cognitive impairments to coma. Identifying damage early and providing prompt treatment will improve the chances of a positive outcome significantly. Damage to the brainstem is most commonly associated with car accidents, but it can also be caused by sports injuries and other forms of trauma, such as sharp blows to the head. Medical evaluation will include examination by a neurologist along with imaging studies of the brain.

Brain stem damage may be the result of a car crash.
Brain stem damage may be the result of a car crash.

The brain stem is a very important part of the brain. Although it isn't involved in higher level cognitive processes, it does regulate a number of physical processes including heart rate, respiration, and balance. It also receives and distributes sensory input. When the brain stem is injured, these functions are disrupted and people may experience serious complications.

Brain stem damage may cause a loss of consciousness.
Brain stem damage may cause a loss of consciousness.

Commonly, brain stem damage causes a loss of consciousness. It may be temporary or more extended. People with severe brain stem damage can enter comas and persistent vegetative states with limited probability of waking up again. Other people may be conscious and aware, but could have severe breathing problems, abnormal heart rates, or balance disorders. More mild injuries may result in a staggering gait and sensory impairments associated with interruptions to sensory signals.

Sharp blows to the head can cause brain stem damage.
Sharp blows to the head can cause brain stem damage.

Symptoms of brain stem damage can include insensitivity to pain and other sensations, including in the viscera, which can be a serious problem. Patients with internal injuries may not exhibit pain in association with them, thus depriving doctors of a key diagnostic clue they could use to identify these injuries quickly. People can also have difficulty speaking and swallowing because the brain stem also controls the cranial nerves used to regulate facial muscle movements.

The brain stem is located at the base of the brain and physically connects it to the spinal cord.
The brain stem is located at the base of the brain and physically connects it to the spinal cord.

Damage to the brain stem is not just associated with physical trauma. Strokes and degenerative diseases can also cause it and the effects may be more subtle in these cases, as the onset can be slower. People who start to develop issues like having trouble walking or controlling the limbs, slurred speech, and sensory impairments should be evaluated for neurological injuries.

Strokes can be the cause of brain stem damage.
Strokes can be the cause of brain stem damage.

Treatments for brain stem damage can include medications, physical therapy, and supportive care such as mechanical respiration. Patients may need to use assistive devices to get around after some kinds of injuries and can benefit from assistance with developing a new communication method if they have trouble speaking clearly and being understood.

The symptoms of brain stem damage vary based on the severity of the injury.
The symptoms of brain stem damage vary based on the severity of the injury.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Mine seems like brainstem but a better term would be Functional neurological disorder.


After an accident, I was diagnosed with Horners syndrome. This is now 12 years after. I suffer from sleep apnea, there are noises at the back of my neck, at the base of my brain. These symptoms seem to be getting worse. Is there anything I can do.


I have lived 32 years now with a stem injury, and after stumbling through life (on my feet) for 27 of those, I now exist in a wheelchair. For how long yet who knows, and I am now 60.


I'm just wondering if anyone else has come across this type of behavior from a brain stem injury before and if you could shed some light on it.

Initially, the person in question was unable to stand unsupported and had violent ataxic limb movement. The person was unable to mobilize after this incident as it was unsafe even with two people supporting the person.

Since then, she has become an incessant talker, most of the time not making any sense. Now she incessantly counts out loud and is able to sequence numbers forward and backward for maybe 6-10 correct numbers.

Is this a common occurrence with this type of brain injury? I have never seen it before. Hope someone can help.


Has anyone ever recovered from a brain stem stroke? Have they walked again?


@Charred - As delicate as the brain is, I don’t get why some people would go into a sport like boxing where they would sustain traumatic brain injury and possibly open themselves up to further harm to their body.

I firmly believe that the great boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s Parksinson’s disease is directly related to the many blows he took to his head in his boxing career.

Personally, while I respect the man and his achievements, I don’t understand what could be more important than your health. I guess you could call it an occupational hazard, but that seems like a really big hazard in my opinion.


@SkyWhisperer - Use your vacation time if you have to. It’s worth it to check these things out, and the doctor won’t mind.

I tend to believe that a combination of symptoms would have to come into play, like slurred speech, and difficulty walking as the article points out.

The brain controls motor movement, so if a stroke happened in that part of the body, I would expect it would affect your ability to move too.

I’m not a doctor, but that’s just my opinion. Sometimes I take these online quizzes to evaluate your health, and they always look for a combination of symptoms, not just one. If all these symptoms happened together, I would be very concerned.


@Charred - I’ve experienced vertigo in the past and it basically came and went. What concerns me is that some of these symptoms can apply to more than one condition.

For example, vertigo can be a sign of an inner ear imbalance – I think this is the most likely culprit actually. However, according to the article it could also be a symptom of brain stem damage.

I realize I can go to the doctor to rule things out, but it seems that I would have to go to the doctor on a frequent basis then. That’s because now and then I get other symptoms, like difficulty breathing and dizziness, which could easily be attributed to other things.


A brain stem stroke is a very dangerous condition. I had a friend who suffered a brain stroke and pulled through it, thankfully, but only because he acted fast.

His face began to droop when he tried to talk and one side of the face couldn’t form a smile; he then lost his balance.

One of his friends who had some medical training immediately recognized the symptoms and rushed him to the hospital. I believe the fact that he acted fast saved his life.

Otherwise, it’s quite possible my friend would have wound up in a vegetative condition, or at least unable to move around easily.

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