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Brain Hypoxia: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Risk Factors, Prognosis, Recovery, Prevention

What is Brain Hypoxia?

Brain hypoxia is a condition where there is insufficient oxygen delivered to the brain causing irreversible damage in some cases, as brain cells start to die if they are deprived of oxygen for more than five minutes(1, 3). Brain hypoxia can develop when a person is choking, drowning, is in cardiac arrest or suffocating. Other potential causes of brain hypoxia include: Stroke, brain injury and carbon monoxide poisoning(1). Brain hypoxia should be taken seriously, as the brain cells, like any other cells of the body, need a continuous flow of oxygen without any hindrance to function properly.

What are the Causes of Brain Hypoxia?

Some of the causes where the brain may not receive sufficient amount of oxygen resulting in brain hypoxia are: cardiac arrest, stroke and irregular heartbeat can prevent nutrients and oxygen from traveling to the brain.(1)

Other potential causes of brain hypoxia are(1):

  • Complications from anesthesia during surgery can lead to decreased blood supply and hence less oxygen to the brain(3).
  • Hypotension is a condition where there is extremely low blood pressure.
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning can also cause brain hypoxia. Inhalation of smoke and carbon monoxide can also cause brain hypoxia.(3)
  • Drowning cuts down the oxygen supply to the brain and causes brain hypoxia.
  • Choking also reduces the oxygen flow to the brain and causes brain hypoxia.
  • High altitudes can also deplete your oxygen reserves and cause brain hypoxia.
  • Injury to the brain causes brain hypoxia.
  • Strangulation is another cause of brain hypoxia.

Medical conditions, such as extreme asthma attacks where the patient has difficulty in breathing, can also cause brain hypoxia.

What are the Risk Factors for Brain Hypoxia?

Any type of event where sufficient oxygen is not delivered to the brain increases the risk for brain hypoxia.

Medical Conditions: A person suffering from medical conditions that restrict the oxygen delivery to the brain is at high risk for brain hypoxia. Medical conditions that increase the risk for brain hypoxia are: hypotension, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and asthma.

Sports: People who play sports are at high risk for head trauma and hence at increased risk for brain hypoxia. Similarly divers and swimmers who hold their breaths for extended time periods are also susceptible to brain hypoxia and the same risk is for mountain climbers as well, due to the high altitude.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Brain Hypoxia?(1, 3)

The symptoms of brain hypoxia can be mild to severe and consist of:

  • Reduced ability to move the body.
  • Temporary loss of memory.
  • Difficulty in making proper decisions.
  • Difficulty in concentrating or on focusing on anything.

Severe Symptoms of Brain Hypoxia that need immediate medical attention are: Seizures and coma(1).

How is the Diagnosis of Brain Hypoxia Made?(3)

Medical history and physical exam of the patient is done.

Diagnostic Tests for Brain Hypoxia are:

  • Blood Test helps in assessing the amount of oxygen present in the blood, which will help with the diagnosis of brain hypoxia.
  • CT scan generates a 3D image of the brain and helps with the diagnosis of brain hypoxia.
  • MRI scan can be done for diagnosing brain hypoxia.
  • Electrocardiogram is also done, which is a test to measure the electrical activity of the heart.
  • Echocardiogram is also a test that generates images of the heart and can determine its function.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test that measures the brain’s electrical activity and helps in pinpointing the seizures.

What is the Treatment for Brain Hypoxia?

Prompt treatment is needed for brain hypoxia in order to restore the oxygen flow to the brain and thus reducing any chances of residual or long term complications.

The specific treatment for brain hypoxia depends on the cause and degree of severity of the condition(1). If the brain hypoxia is mild, such as resulting from mountain climbing, then returning back to a lower altitude is the only treatment that you need. In severe cases of brain hypoxia, treatment consists of emergency care where the patient needs to be placed on a ventilator to help with breathing.

In brain hypoxia, the heart also can need support and the patient can be given intravenous fluids and blood(1).

If the patient is also suffering from rapid heartbeat and hypertension, then medications for these issues are given(1). If a brain hypoxia patient is also having seizures, then medicines or anesthetics are given for treatment.(1)

NOTE: It is imperative to seek immediate treatment when one is suffering from brain hypoxia, as prompt medical attention will reduce the chances of brain damage from brain hypoxia.

How Can You Prevent Brain Hypoxia?

In order to prevent brain hypoxia, it is important to supervise certain medical conditions, such as if you are suffering from low blood pressure and are an asthmatic, then your inhaler should be kept handy always for preventing brain hypoxia. If a person is susceptible to altitude sickness then he/she should avoid traveling to high altitudes. If a person is abruptly cut off from oxygen, such as in drowning or during a fire, then cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should be administered immediately to prevent the worsening of the condition.

What is Prognosis and Recovery Time from Brain Hypoxia?(2)

The recovery time from brain hypoxia depends on the amount of time the brain has been deprived of oxygen and the severity of the condition. Some of the challenges that the patient can face when recovering from brain hypoxia are: hallucinations, insomnia, muscle spasms and memory loss.

The prognosis is poor for patients where the oxygen levels to the brain have been cut down for more than 8 hours. This is the reason why patients suffering from traumatic head injuries are promptly shifted to ICU for prompt monitoring to assess whether the brain is getting sufficient oxygen or not.


Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 31, 2020

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