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Drowning: When the Brain Is Deprived of Oxygen

drown-3690715_640.jpgDrowning deprives the brain of oxygen and often leads to the death of brain cells or the physical death of the drowning victim. Every year in Chicago, Illinois, far too many people are caught in the riptides of Lake Michigan, often depriving the victims of oxygen, causing brain damage or death.

Brain Damage Caused by Drowning

When the brain is deprived of oxygen, the result is usually brain damage or death. Anoxic brain injury (ABI), a common consequence of oxygen deprivation caused by drowning, can cause severe neurological damage in people who survive. When the brain is deprived of oxygen, brain cells can begin to die within five minutes. Most drowning victims who suffer oxygen deprivation sustain permanent neurological and psychological damage.

Drowning is the second most common cause of accidental death in children. ABI is commonly seen in young drowning victims. With immediate CPR, 66 percent of nearly drowned victims survive but are often left with ABI due to oxygen deprivation. Cell damage in the brain often affects parts of the brain that control memory, speech, and movement. Cerebral anoxia may produce brain swelling which can increase brain damage by squeezing smaller blood vessels and interrupting blood supply. In cases of severe anoxic brain injury, a victim can transition from a comatose state to a persistent vegetative state where brain functions maintain breathing, blood pressure, and heartbeat, but there is no evidence of consciousness in the victim.

Treatment and Recovery

The treatment and recovery for ABI usually vary from person to person, depending on the severity of brain damage. Although there is no known cure, certain factors can impact damage and recovery.

  • Age - Young children and elderly adults sustain the most severe types of ABI since many drowning victims in these age groups can't save themselves and don't receive immediate CPR or medical treatment.

  • Duration of Submersion - The length of time a drowning victim is submerged will determine oxygen deprivation. In a drowning accident, a few minutes can make the difference between recovery and brain damage.

  • Duration of Unconsciousness - The duration of unconsciousness after a drowning accident impacts the severity of the brain injury. In victims who are comatose for six hours or more, ABI is usually permanent with an unfavorable outcome for recovery.

The prognosis for ABI caused by drowning is uncertain. In injury victims who show good improvement within the first month after an incident, recovery is more favorable. If recovery is possible, improvement is usually seen within the first six months. For the best outcome, the earliest possible treatment and rehabilitation is essential.

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