Head Trauma May Up Risk of Substance Abuse in Teens

Traumatic brain injury tied to more use of alcohol, marijuana and other substances in teens

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Teens often engage in risky behaviors, but a head injury may mean double trouble, a new study found.

This new study found that teens who had ever had a traumatic brain injury were much more likely to smoke cigarettes and use illegal drugs like meth, cocaine and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) than those who hadn't had a head injury. They were also more likely to use alcohol, sedatives and ADHD medications that had not been prescribed for them.

The authors of this study called for better education about traumatic brain injury and substance use for medical personnel, parents, teachers and coaches.

This study was led by Michael D. Cusimano, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital, and Robert E. Mann, PhD, director of the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey in Canada.

“Overall, a teen with a history of traumatic brain injury is at least twice as likely as a classmate who hasn't suffered a brain injury to drink alcohol, use cannabis or abuse other drugs," Dr. Cusimano said in a press release. “On top of the other health consequences, substance abuse increases the odds of suffering an injury that could result in a traumatic brain injury. And using some of these substances may also impair recovery after injury. People should take every brain injury seriously because, as this research shows, the immediate and long-term effects can alter lives."

These researchers studied 6,383 teens in an ongoing study called the 2011 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey. The teens were in the ninth through 12th grades.

A traumatic brain injury can result from a fall or a blow to the head. A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury.

For the study, Dr. Cusimano and colleagues defined a traumatic brain injury as being knocked out for at least five minutes or spending at least one night in the hospital because of the injury.

Compared to teens without a history of traumatic brain injury, teens with a history of these injuries were 3.8 times more likely to have used crystal meth or nonprescribed tranquilizers or sedatives, these researchers found. The teens who had had traumatic brain injury were also at least twice as likely to have used ecstasy, nonprescribed opioid pain relievers, cocaine, LSD and medications typically prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Teens who self-reported a history of traumatic brain injury were also 2.5 times more likely to have smoked cigarettes or engaged in binge drinking.

Dr. Cusimano and colleagues were unable to find whether students with traumatic brain injuries had substance abuse problems before the injuries or whether substance abuse became an issue after.

“These data show us that there are important links between adolescent traumatic brain injury and substance use," Dr. Mann said. "While we can't yet say which one causes the other, we know this combination of factors is something to watch because it can have a serious negative impact on young people as they develop."

This study was published Nov. 26 in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation.

This research was funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, among others. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.


Review Date: 
November 26, 2014
Last Updated:
March 12, 2015