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How to Recover from Memory Loss After a Head Injury

Image of Dr. Mark Allen Ph. D.
Updated on 24 January, 2024
Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Alina Fong

How to Recover from Memory Loss After a Head Injury

If you’re experiencing memory issues after a head injury, you are not alone. 

Some degree of memory loss after a head injury is common. For most, memory loss (and other symptoms) will resolve within a few days or weeks, but a few patients will continue to experience problems for months or even years after their injury. This ongoing condition is called post-concussion syndrome (PCS).

Many PCS patients end up frustrated because traditional treatment approaches do not address the underlying causes of their memory issues. Common medical advice is geared to help patients cope with their memory impairments rather than to recover brain function. 

At Cognitive FX, we take a different approach. We target the underlying causes of symptoms that linger after a head injury. Our methods are based on cutting-edge diagnostics, recent scientific research, and an unprecedented, multidisciplinary collaboration that brings the best available therapies together under one roof.

This rigor is why Cognitive FX was the first treatment provider able to help Riley Horner, a young girl whose memory reset every few hours to June 11, 2019.

Key to our approach is treating the brain as an interconnected whole rather than trying to treat one symptom at a time. To “fix” your memory means all parts of the brain that contribute to memory formation and recall need to work well. Our patients often come in with deficits in memory, attention, and sensory processing that need to be rehabilitated simultaneously for them to see marked improvement. 

Later in this post, we’ll detail this treatment approach and give examples of patients who recovered significantly from their memory loss symptoms. Throughout, we’ll cover needed information such as…

If you’re experiencing symptoms that won’t resolve after a mild traumatic brain injury, you’re not alone. And you’re not crazy. 90% of our patients show symptom improvement after just one week of treatment at our center specializing in post-concussion therapy. To see if you are eligible for treatment, sign up for a consultation.

Types of Memory Loss You Could Experience After a Head Injury

A person looking at photos.

Memory is not just one skill. There are several kinds of memory, including short-term memorylong-term memory, working memory, and episodic memory. Concussions (mild TBI, or mTBI) and other head injuries can affect different types of memory, potentially causing different types of amnesia. 

Anterograde Amnesia

Anterograde amnesia is the most common type of memory loss after a concussion. It’s often accompanied by other cognitive problems, such as difficulties with attention

Patients with this type of memory loss struggle to remember new information but can remember events from before their injury. Anterograde amnesia leaves patients with difficulties at school or work and interferes with their ability to carry out their daily tasks. This type of short-term memory is frequently the last cognitive function to return as the patient recovers. 

Patients with anterograde amnesia may experience:

  • Difficulty remembering conversations or events just minutes after they occur

  • Difficulty remembering the names and faces of people they’ve just met 

  • Difficulty remembering the storyline in movies recently watched or books recently read

  • Confusion about current events, dates, and times. Patients often lose track of time or feel unsure about the date

  • Difficulty retracing a route they took earlier in the day

Patients may remain confused and unable to store new memories for days, weeks, or even months after their injury. One extreme case of post-traumatic amnesia is that of teenager Riley Horner. In 2019, Riley was at a dance in Springfield, Illinois, when she was accidentally kicked in the head.  

At the hospital, doctors ran a few tests and couldn’t find anything wrong, so Riley went home. However, the 16-year-old woke up the next day with no recollection of her injury and still thinking she was going to the dance that evening. In the days that followed, her memory started resetting every two hours. For six months, not only was she unable to make new memories, but she constantly woke up thinking it was the 11th of June, the day of her injury.

Medical professionals struggled for months to explain the extent of Riley’s condition. MRI and CT scans on Riley’s brain showed no abnormalities, and sadly, doctors were unable to suggest any potential treatment. This is not surprising given that structural CT and MRI scans cannot show the functional damage caused by concussion.

After Riley’s story went viral, her family found Cognitive FX. After just one week of treatment with us, Riley started making her first memories. By the end of week two, she was able to remember almost everything. “It’s truly a miracle, I don’t know what else to say! I have seen stuff here and there, but last night it was real to me that I have my daughter back! She will have a future,” said Sarah Horner, Riley’s mom. 

While Riley did not regain 100% of her former cognitive ability, she was able to go back to school and pursue a college degree, a dream she had begun to worry wouldn’t happen.

Prospective Memory

Concussions may also affect prospective memory, in which patients can’t remember plans or other commitments long enough to attend them. Prospective memory is essential not just for daily living, but also for remembering activities important to recovery, such as taking necessary medications, completing rehabilitation exercises, and maintaining supportive social relationships. 

Patients with loss of prospective memory may:

  • Forget to keep appointments or show up at the wrong time or day
  • Tell friends that they will visit at a certain time, then forget to do so
  • Forget important occasions, such as birthdays, holidays, and family events
  • Forget to take medicines at the right time
  • Forget to pick up children from school at a certain time
  • Forget to attend important meetings at work

Learn about the types of memory loss after a head injury and how to recover.

Retrograde Amnesia

Retrograde amnesia is less common, but it can happen. Typically, patients lose the ability to recall events that have occurred during the period immediately preceding the brain injury. They may also be unable to remember events from days, weeks, or even years before the concussion. This is more common after a severe head injury. 

Patients with retrograde amnesia may experience: 

  • Difficulty remembering events that occurred before the concussion
  • Difficulty remembering general knowledge facts
  • Difficulty remembering names, faces, places, and dates that were familiar before the injury
  • Inability to recall skills and abilities that they knew before the injury
  • Difficulty studying for exams at school 
  • Inability to recall long-term memories that occurred during childhood

Sometimes patients struggle with both anterograde and retrograde amnesia. This is what happened to one of our patients, Ryan. His life was turned upside down after a car accident, causing a whole range of cognitive issues, including extensive problems with memory and focus.

 

When Ryan’s aunt told him about Cognitive FX, he decided to pursue treatment at the clinic. “Even after the first day, my energy level was already starting to go up. I was able to sleep better at night, and as the week went on, my energy — I have a ton of energy now. My focus is a lot better. I can multitask again, my long-term memory is pretty good now too, and short-term is not a problem. I can remember things people tell me, things I see.”

“The people you work with — they're so friendly,” he added. “It's the only place I've gone to where everyone really cares and asks you every day how you're doing. It's like a family environment, which helps you become more comfortable, which is important when you're trying to do therapy.”

Memory of the Injury

Sometimes, patients with PCS don’t remember the injury itself. In simple terms, this means the brain has not stored the injury as a memory.

If you can’t remember the events that led to your concussion, you likely never will. Your brain didn’t store those memories. If that’s the case with you, the best way to learn about the injury is to ask family members, friends, or medical personnel who may have relevant information.

Dissociative Amnesia

Though extremely rare, this type of memory loss can cause patients to forget not only their memories but also their identity. In extreme cases of this disorientation, they may not even recognize their own reflection in the mirror. This most often occurs after severe traumatic events, but in most cases, patients begin to remember themselves as they recover from the severe TBI.

Causes of Memory Loss After a Head Injury

 

Before we discuss how PCS patients can experience memory problems, it helps to understand how memory works. In very simple terms, there are three steps to learn and memorize new information: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding is the initial learning of information; storage refers to maintaining information over time; and retrieval refers to the ability to access information at a later stage. If you want to find out more, we’ve written in more detail about how memory works in a healthy brain in our post about post-COVID memory loss

How memories are formed, stored, and recalled.

Forming and recalling a memory requires many parts of the brain to work in harmony. Concussions disrupt this process, but it’s impossible to determine exactly which step is affected. One reason for this is that these three steps are not as separate as this description implies. Rather, all three steps are interconnected. For example, how we encode a new memory will determine how it’s stored and how it can be recalled later. Patients also need to pay enough attention to form a new memory in the first place, and all the parts of the brain that encode, store, and retrieve memories need to be in full working order. 

Post-traumatic memory loss is likely due to some combination of the following causes:

Structural Damage to the Brain 

Several areas in the brain are involved in encoding and storing memories, and damage to any of these areas can cause memory loss. Some of the main areas of the brain involved in memory include the:

  • Frontal cortex
  • Hippocampus
  • Hypothalamus
  • Amygdala

As different types of memories use different areas and different systems in the brain, concussions can cause memory loss in one type of memory but leave other types intact. For example, damage to the frontal cortex is more likely to cause short-term memory loss, whereas damage to the hippocampus disrupts the memory consolidation process used to store long-term memories. 

Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) Dysfunction

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls a variety of bodily functions, including blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing patterns. 

Most of this control is achieved via the sympathetic (SNS) and the parasympathetic (PNS) nervous system. The SNS prepares your body to react to a threat (known as the “fight or flight” reaction), and the PNS helps to calm the body (known as the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system). Under normal circumstances, the PNS and SNS work together in harmony and change dominance when needed.

Concussions, however, can disrupt this balance, and the SNS tends to stay activated even when it’s not needed. This causes a variety of physical symptoms, such as headaches, blood pressure changes, heart palpitations, and problems breathing, to name just a few.

In addition to regulating physical body functions, recent studies have identified that the PNS also enhances memory skills when it’s active. Researchers don’t fully understand this mechanism, but there’s some speculation that an active PNS improves how new information is processed by regulating dopamine production in the brain. Patients with an underactive PNS may see memory improvement as their autonomic nervous system responds to therapy.

Further reading: Autonomic nervous system dysfunction after a concussion

Neurovascular Coupling (NVC) Disruption

Problems with memory can also develop due to changes in neurovascular coupling. When brain cells need energy and oxygen to perform a particular task, they request these resources from surrounding blood vessels. These vessels then deliver the right resources to the right place at the right time in the right amount. This complex, dynamically regulated connection between the vascular system and the brain is called neurovascular coupling (NVC).

However, concussions disrupt this communication between brain cells and blood vessels. As a result, resources may be delivered to the wrong place, at the wrong time, or in the wrong amounts (too much or too little), which means the brain can’t continue to operate normally. Depending on which areas are affected, this disruption may cause different symptoms. For example, if it affects areas involved in creating new memories, patients may experience difficulties in processing and retrieving different types of memories. 

Inflammatory Response

Concussions also trigger localized inflammation near the site of injury, affecting how these areas receive the resources to maintain normal operations. This can persist for months and cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, cognitive impairment, irritability, anxiety, and insomnia. High inflammation levels are also associated with poorer cognitive skills, including problems with short-term memory and learning new information. 

Sleep Disturbances

Sleep is vital for the formation and consolidation of memories. Getting enough high-quality sleep helps with multiple cognitive skills, including attention, concentration, memory, problem-solving, creativity, emotional processing, and judgment.

Many PCS patients experience sleep disturbances, which in turn can cause memory issues. For example, broken sleep cycles impair memory consolidation. In addition, patients who are sleep-deprived can form false memories and have poorer working and visual-spatial memory. 

Breathing Problems 

Concussions can cause breathing irregularities, which in turn can affect memory-forming skills. For example, studies show that alterations in breathing patterns affect the hippocampus, which disrupts memory recall. 

The ANS is also involved in this process. When you focus your attention on something with the intention to form a new memory, your brain activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases breathing rates to promote blood flow to the brain. Under normal circumstances, this is a short-term change; the parasympathetic nervous system reduces breathing rates back to normal soon after. However, as described earlier, in PCS patients, the sympathetic branch is dominant most of the time. As a result, both increased sympathetic activity and decreased parasympathetic activity lead to poorer cognitive function, including memory and attention. 

Common Treatment Approaches for Memory Loss in PCS Patients

A patient consults a doctor about head injury.

Most treatment providers are unable to address the underlying cause of memory loss in mild head injury patients. There are some commonly offered, helpful therapies and options that we’ll discuss below. Then, we’ll explain how treatment at Cognitive FX takes the best of these treatments and improves upon them to get better results for PCS patients. 

Cognitive Therapy 

Cognitive therapy is designed to help patients who are experiencing cognitive issues after a concussion, such as poor memory, difficulties with attention, and problem-solving. A cognitive therapist will guide patients through exercises designed to improve those cognitive abilities. 

Common exercises to help with memory may include: 

  • Memorizing a list of words and recalling them later 
  • Making up a story to connect different words to help with word recall
  • Naming as many items as possible for multiple categories, such as tools, animals, plants, countries, occupations, foods, sports, etc.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy can be very beneficial for patients with memory loss. For example, therapists may ask patients to engage in concentration and memory games, such as word searches, card games, and puzzles. 

Occupational therapists also work with patients to develop routines that minimize the impact of memory loss, creating compensatory strategies that allow patients to participate in many daily activities. For example, patients might write reminders and store important items, such as their car keys and phone, in the same place every day. Studies confirm these therapeutic interventions have a significant impact on memory, as well as mental health and overall wellness. 

Psychotherapy 

Memory problems may also stem from other conditions, such as depression and anxiety. The current theory is that anxiety and stress hinder memory skills because the brain diverts its attention and energy to identify the perceived threat instead of engaging in whatever cognitive task the patient is trying to complete. 

Treating those conditions may help improve memory. In this case, talk therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or counseling, are effective options. CBT encourages the patient to take an active role in managing their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It helps patients change how they think, feel, or act to improve their mood and reduce stress. 

Further reading: CBT for post-concussion syndrome

Relaxation Therapies

There is mounting evidence that mind-body therapies, such as meditation, mindfulness, and breathing exercises (which we teach our patients at Cognitive FX), are promising treatment options for memory problems.

For example, multiple studies show that engaging in regular meditation promotes beneficial changes in the brain, supports communication between different areas, and enhances nutrient utilization in regions involved in cognitive processing, memory consolidation, and attention. Ultimately, patients experience improved memory, attention, executive function, and processing speed to help combat the long-term effects of brain injury

Music Therapy

Music exposure also positively affects the brain, helping combat loss of memory. Studies show that listening to familiar music improves cognitive processing, enhances communication between different areas of the brain, and stimulates activity in areas involved in emotion, working memory, and attention. 

What’s more, music doesn't just help patients retrieve stored memories, it also helps them create new ones. Healthy people scored better on tests of memory and reasoning after completing a course of moderate physical exercise to musical accompaniment (as contrasted to those who did not have music).

Medications 

There are no medications specifically for the treatment of memory loss, but there are some prescription drugs, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse), to assist with attention problems. This can sometimes help with memory. These medications often have side effects, and we advise that you discuss the pros and cons with your health care provider before starting any new medications.

Further reading: Medications for common symptoms of concussion

Dietary Supplements

You may come across many different dietary supplements that claim to help with memory problems. However, most of these, including apoaequorin, coenzyme Q10, omega-3 fatty acids, and various vitamins, lack compelling evidence to support their use. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test dietary supplements' safety, effectiveness, or labeling before products go on the market. Our advice is to avoid using these products as memory enhancers, or at least, ask your doctor before you start taking anything. 

Further reading: Natural remedies for concussion symptoms

Recover from Memory Loss at Cognitive FX

Memory problems after a concussion or other head injury are rarely the only symptom a patient experiences. If you are experiencing memory loss or other ongoing memory symptoms, you’re likely also suffering from an assortment of other common concussion symptoms, such as emotional changes (sometimes mistaken for personality changes), headaches, dizziness, blurry vision, brain fog, and sleep problems.

These symptoms are best treated in combination instead of one by one. At Cognitive FX, we deploy multidisciplinary therapy and guided exercise to help your brain heal. This treatment process begins with an in-depth assessment to guide your therapy.

Key to our examination is a state-of-the-art brain imaging scan called functional Neurocognitive Imagining (fNCI). With this scan, our team can identify which areas of your brain were affected by the brain injury. In practical terms, the scan looks at 100 different areas in the brain while patients perform a series of cognitive tasks. It also looks at how these brain regions communicate with each other.

Three Active Tasks > Real-Time Imaging > Scan Analysis

The results from the scan are then used to design a personalized treatment plan — called Enhanced Performance In Cognition, or EPIC. Here’s a snippet of a post-scan analysis of Dr. Alina Fong and Lauren Taylor Brem discussing how Lauren struggles to find words in moments of tension:

 

After you’ve discussed your results and treatment approach with our team, we begin a three-step process: 

  • Prepare
  • Activate
  • Recover

Prepare

In the first step prepare  patients complete short sessions of aerobic exercise intervals, typically on a stationary bike or treadmill. This triggers the release of a series of neurochemicals, including one called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which boosts the effect of subsequent therapy. Crucially, BDNF is a key component in healthy memory function.

EPIC treatment on a treadmill.

Activate

During the second step activate patients engage in various therapies, including occupational therapy, neuromuscular therapy, neurointegration therapy, cognitive therapy, sensorimotor therapy, vision therapy, vestibular therapy, and others. While most of our patients receive many of the same types of therapy, each patient will receive exercises and combinations of therapies that are closely tailored to that person’s brain injury and evaluation results.

Lauren Taylor Brem in neurointegration (advanced vision and vestibular) therapy.

Recover

The final step recover involves periods of rest and relaxation in between therapy sessions. This may include breathing exercises to promote relaxation, neuromuscular massage of the neck and shoulders, and mindfulness exercises. 

This treatment cycle aims to restore healthier neurovascular coupling, improve ANS function, and reduce the incidence and severity of PCS symptoms, including memory problems. 

One of the main therapies for patients struggling with memory is cognitive therapy. Therapists will ask patients to complete a series of exercises that promote thinking, concentration, and memory. For example, working on short-term memory may involve reading a short text and then answering a few simple questions to see how much information you can retain. Or, you might be asked to memorize a series of photographs and recall details at your appointment the following day. 

Given its connection with memory, therapy also involves exercises to improve your attention. For example, a game for selective attention (the ability to focus on only one thing) involves tapping whenever you hear a pair of opposite words in a list (such as ‘room’ ‘hot’ ‘cold’ ‘bear’ ‘door’), while ignoring the news radio playing in the background. 

Our therapists can also improve your divided attention (the ability to switch between tasks) by asking you to sort cards by suit with the cards facing down at the same time as doing simple math calculations. 

EPIC Treatment memory game with cards.

Once treatment is completed, patients meet with a member of our team to assess progress and to assign an at-home routine. The list typically includes a few aerobic exercises, cognitive activities, and ways to rest. Doing these exercises at home is a good way to ensure long-term recovery after treatment. 

Strategies to Help with Memory Loss After a Concussion

Write things down to remember them.

PCS patients often struggle to remember things from day to day. Here we describe a few different strategies to use at home to help patients cope with memory impairments during their recovery.

Further reading: At-home solutions for memory loss

Memory and Attention Exercises 

Enhancing memory and attention with targeted exercises can significantly improve memory function in PCS patients. These exercises are only effective if you do them consistently. Gradually increase the duration and complexity of these exercises to improve your cognitive skills. 

A few examples include: 

  • Attention Shifting & Alternating Attention: Patients need to engage in a physical task combined with a cognitive task. For example, while doing housework, start a conversation with a family member. This exercise helps your brain switch between different tasks, supporting cognitive flexibility and multitasking skills.

  • Selective Attention: Patients need to perform a task while intentionally incorporating distractions. For example, patients may try to do simple work while listening to music or a podcast. Distractions need to be noticeable but not overwhelming. This exercise aims to help patients filter out irrelevant stimuli while maintaining concentration on the task they need to complete.

  • Sustained Attention: Patients need to choose an activity that requires their complete attention, such as reading a book or practicing a musical instrument. Start with short periods of attention and gradually increase the time spent on the task. This exercise aims to help patients improve their ability to stay focused on a single task for a prolonged period.

Encoding Strategies 

Patients can improve memory recall by using a variety of memory encoding strategies. Using these methods on a regular basis can enhance the way your brain encodes and stores memories, making them easier to retrieve later on. 

 A few examples include:

  • Write it down: Writing down your thoughts can help with memory retrieval. Actually writing on paper with a pen is more effective than typing. 

  • Create stories: Develop imaginative stories to interconnect your memories and improve recall.

  • Use categorization: Grouping elements that are similar aids in memory consolidation.

  • Use mnemonic tools: Using acronyms, songs, and rhymes can significantly augment memory. This form of association is one of the best ways for your brain to learn new information. 

  • Explain it to others: Explaining new information to others helps improve memory retention.

  • Use visualization: Creating vivid mental snapshots of objects and their locations improves memory recall. Usually, the crazier the image, the easier it will be to remember. 

  • Use repetition: Repeating information multiple times enhances memory. 

  • Chunk information: Breaking down information — like phone numbers — into manageable segments helps with memorization.

  • Use associative techniques: Establishing connections between new information and pre-existing knowledge improves memory recall.

Compensatory Memory Strategies

In addition to attention and memory exercises and encoding strategies, PCS patients may also benefit from using multiple compensatory strategies to provide additional support for memory retention. 

A few examples include: 

  • Use a daily planner: Use a calendar to organize your tasks, appointments, and commitments. You need to update it regularly to ensure that important information is readily available, reducing the chances of forgetting crucial events.

  • Plan your week: Plan important upcoming activities and responsibilities for the following week. Visualizing the week ahead can help you allocate time more effectively and give specific slots for memory-intensive tasks.

  • Create checklists for cleaning: Create a checklist for cleaning each room of your house. This method ensures that you don't overlook any cleaning tasks and gives you a visual guide.

  • Create morning and evening routines: Write down morning and evening routine checklists. These step-by-step lists help you during the day and free up cognitive resources for other tasks.

  • Create an exit checklist: Put an exit checklist on your door listing all the items you need before leaving the house, such as keys, wallet, and phone. This practice reduces the chances of leaving essential items behind and eliminates last-minute stress.

  • Create a checklist of bills: To make sure you never miss a payment, create a list of all outgoing bills you have each month and the date on which they are due. 

  • Keep an exit box: Keep a box near your door where you store the items you need before leaving the house. Always store these items, such as keys or glasses, in the same box so that they’re always easy to find. 

Lifestyle Choices

Combined with therapy and compensatory strategies, these lifestyle changes can help PCS patients recover faster and overcome their memory issues. A few examples include:

  • Engage in regular physical activity: In addition to improving fitness and strength, regular exercise can also help with memory function. Exercise also indirectly boosts memory and attention by improving mood and sleep and reducing stress and anxiety.

  • Stay mentally active: Keeping the brain active can help patients recover their cognitive skills, including memory and attention. Anything from learning to play a new musical instrument to playing board games with friends and family can help.

  • Keep an active social life: Social interaction helps ward off feelings of isolation and depression, which aggravate memory problems. Look for opportunities to get together with friends and family, go out for a meal, or volunteer at a local charity. 

  • Follow a healthy sleep pattern: Not getting enough sleep can affect your memory. Try to go to bed and get up every day at the same time, avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol in the evening, and engage in something relaxing before going to bed.

  • Eat a healthy and memory-boosting diet: A healthy and balanced diet is good for your brain and protects cognitive skills, including memory. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; avoid highly processed sugary or fatty items. Limit alcohol consumption.

Stories of Recovery from Memory Problems

Scotty Allen talking with a Cognitive FX specialist.Patient Scotty Allen, a popular YouTuber who shared his concussion story, discusses his story with the Cognitive FX team.

Memory problems after a head injury are more common than most people realize. They can happen after even a mild brain injury with no loss of consciousness. Fortunately, there are treatment options for this long-term symptom of head injury. If you want to learn even more about memory problems after head trauma, see our post on memory loss recovery stories & FAQs.

If you’re experiencing symptoms that won’t resolve after a mild traumatic brain injury, you’re not alone. And you’re not crazy. 90% of our patients show symptom improvement after just one week of treatment at our center specializing in post-concussion therapy. To see if you are eligible for treatment, sign up for a consultation.


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