Alcohol May Be Protective from Head Injury

Dec. 19, 2006— -- Alcohol is to blame in many car crashes and other accidents but a few drinks might improve your chances of surviving a serious head injury says new research, even though too many drinks makes survival less likely.

About one-third to one-half of all patients hospitalized with traumatic injuries are intoxicated at the time of injury, but a study published in today's issue of the Archives of Surgery from the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that alcohol can keep a head injury from getting worse.

This doesn't mean that it's suddenly safe to drink and operate heavy machinery, but the study does suggest that alcohol could somehow play a role in future treatments for serious head injuries.

"A poignant result, if true," said Dr. David Goldman, Chief of the Section of Human Neurogenetics at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health. "Alcohol makes it dramatically more likely to experience head injury but moderates the effects," said Goldman.

Canadian researchers studied more than 1,158 consecutive patients who came into a level 1 trauma center with severe brain injuries caused by blunt trauma -- like a car accident or fall -- between 1988 and 2003. Doctors tested each patient's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and compared that measurement to the seriousness of the injury, the length of hospital stay and whether the patient died or left the hospital. Moderate alcohol consumption seemed to be key to some patients' survival.

Those patients who were alcohol-free -- or heavily intoxicated -- were more likely to die in the hospital than those patients with some alcohol in their blood.

740 of the patients studied had a BAC of zero, and the rest were a little (or a lot) less than sober. 315 had low to moderate BAC -- blood levels up to 0.23 percent, or nearly three times the legal limit -- and 103 had even higher alcohol levels in their blood. Of the patients who came into the hospital with a low to moderate BAC, almost 28 percent died in the hospital, compared to more than 36 percent of the patients who came in stone-cold-sober.

But patients with even higher alcohol levels in their blood were 73 percent more likely to die than those with none, the study also found. Study authors suggest that low to moderate doses of alcohol could protect the brain by stopping the mechanisms that cause what doctors call secondary brain injury -- when traumatized brain cells continue to be deprived of oxygen long after the initial accident, which worsens the injury.

Interesting as the finding may be, it doesn't give new meaning to the frat-house staple "beer helmet."

The study didn't consider how well the patients recovered from their injuries -- so those patients who survived their injuries might still have suffered irreparable brain damage. More importantly, alcohol is often an underlying cause of the accidents that cause these serious injuries.

"Overall, people are still at much greater risk of dying if they drive while intoxicated," said the study authors in their report. "What our study implies is that there may be a role for an alcohol-based resuscitation fluid in improving outcomes in adequately resuscitated patients with severe head injury."

Although this study suggests that a few drinks might make it easier for the brain to survive a serious injury, a few drinks make it a lot more likely that the brain will be seriously injured.

"The risk for an accident and death start to rise after the first drink and go up fast with each additional drink." Said Dr. J.C. Garbut, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville, North Car.

Says Garbut, the bottom line still is and should always be, don't drink and drive.