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July 28, 2009 / Mark Kerrigan

The Malicious Hazard for Head Injury Survivors: Insidious Weight Gain

142KLAs I’ve stated before, during the four weeks I spent in a coma after my car wreck, I lost about 40 pounds. That may sound like the result of a phenomenal weight-loss technique or some fad diet, but for a 16 year-old who was certainly not overweight, the result was devastating.

As soon as I regained by ability to swallow and get my nutrition by eating rather than through a tube snaked through my nose and sinuses into my throat and down my esophagus, I was given double portions of every single meal I was provided by Baptist Rehabilitation Institute in Nashville, Tenn.

Yep, you read right. Double desserts, double milk, double veggies, double entrées, everything. Needless to say, I quickly put back on the weight I had lost. I don’t remember whether I hit a plateau at 125, but the next thing I new was that I was 140.

The therapists, nurses and other professionals warned my parents and me that I would likely not be able to tell when I was full. When something tasted good, I ate it until I was about to be sick, and sometimes I was.

Twenty years after my wreck, I struggle, like any other middle-aged male who has a sedentary job, with trying to take the weight off.

It first became an issue to me when I realized that my joints hurt. I was working as “belt picker” at Fed-Ex Ground and each step was painful. Not necessarily to my knees or feet, but most notably to my hips. I went to see an orthopedist who stated that “We all could lose about 10-15 pounds.”

I took that as a mantra, and I concentrated on limiting my consumption of food and calories while increasing the number of calories I burned. Within about a month, I had dropped back down below 200 lbs.

After I left Fed-Ex, as a result of a different MVA, I became fairly sedentary but my consumption didn’t reflect my lifestyle changes. Before I knew it, I was pushing the scales to 230+. And my hips, knees and feet objected to every single step I took.

This past week, I ate dinner with my parents several times. More than once, I was told I needed to not eat as much as I was. “You shouldn’t have someone order something just so you can have it,” my mother reminded me.

And without realizing it, that’s what I’ve been doing for over a decade! I’m the disposal in the house. If my wife or son doesn’t want to eat something, I’ll eat it. It’s like that Life cereal commercial: “Give it to Mikey. He’ll eat anything!”

So if something is appealing to my pallet, I usually eat it until I’ve close to throwing my dinner up. It’s fairly common for survivors of traumatic brain injuries to consume food in this way.

Others, though, have completely the opposite tendency—they don’t eat unless someone reminds them that it is time.

Oh, if I were somewhere in between!



Leave a Comment
  1. janie / Jul 12 2010 7:20 pm

    My partner recently suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. He eats everything, leftovers, extra meals, what is left on my plate. He has clearly gained weight, as he is no longer to work at his job that required physical labour. We are looking for strategies to help control this impulsivity with respect to eating.


    • onthemarkwriting / Jul 12 2010 8:49 pm

      Janie — I know all too well about weight gain after a brain trauma. In a support group I’ve attended, I heard about young girls, in high school, gaining up to 100 lbs. (about 52Kg) after sustaining a head injury. (I include aneurysms and stroke under the umbrella of head injury, since the results are so similar.)

      Part of the brain, the hypothalamus (or the brain’s brain), controls sensations such as hunger or thirst. Once the hypothalamus is damaged or compromised, the patient tastes something good, but fails to know when to stop eating. He may not be able to tell that his stomach is full and bulging, but for me, I was able to tell I didn’t need to eat any more, but I kept thinking, “Just a little more.”

      That coupled with his loss of physical activity is a disaster on the brink of occurring. Get his weight under control early-on before becomes unmanageable.

      I wish I could be of more help to you.

      Thanks for sharing,

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