Brain Impact Apnoea


  • brain impact apneoa is an under-appreciated cause of morbidity and mortality in traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • hypoxia can markedly worsens outcome in TBI
  • aka ‘impact brain apnoea’
  • rapid correction (e.g. by bystanders) of brain impact apnoea may facilitate full neurological recovery


The first 10 minutes following TBI has been described as ‘the critical phase’ (it is followed by exponential, plateau and resolution phases) and is thought to involve 2 key components:

  • apnoea
  • catecholamine surge


  • Always occurs with concussive head injury
  • greater the energy delivered to the brain, the longer the subsequent apnea and the poorer the respiratory recovery
  • In severe forms respiratory recovery does not occur spontaneously, leading to death without resuscitation at the scene
  • Prolonged apnoea causes:
    • hypoxia over a period of minutes leading to direct neuronal injury and cell death
    • hypercapnia resulting in cerebral vasodilation and increased cerebral blood volume
    • the end result can be massive, early cerebral oedema resulting in death or poor neurological outcomes
  • in addition to centrally driven apnoea, obstructive apnoea resultant from loss of airway patency may also occur

Catecholamine surge

  • massive sympathetic discharge occurs resulting in hypertension
  • hypertension compounds hypercapnia-induced cerebral vasodilatation resulting in early vasogenic edema, endothelial injury, and blood-brain barrier disruption
  • intracranial pressure (ICP) progressively increases depending on the occurs depending on the magnitude of the adrenergic surge and hypercapnia
  • other vascular beds may develop sustained vasoconstriction, resulting on complications such as  ischemic gastric mucosal ulceration and neurogenic pulmonary oedema
  • direct catecholamine tissue injury can occur, such as myocardial necrosis


Clinical features

  • history of traumatic brain injury
  • apnoeic since time of impact
  • respiratory failure may progress to lethal cardiac arrest unless there is appropriate intervention


  • CT Head (may be normal, underlying severe anatomical injury may or may not be present)


  • requires prompt prehospital intervention (e.g. by bystanders, may be facilitated by innovations such as the GoodSam app)
  • open airway (with cervical spine protection if appropriate)
  • correct hypoxia and hypoventilation
  • if cardiac arrest has not supervened some patients will spontaneously rouse or be extubated neurologically intact after further investigation (sometimes with a normal CT head)
  • start usual severe TBI management if required (see TBI Management)

CCC Neurocritical Care Series

Journal articles

  • Atkinson JL. The neglected prehospital phase of head injury: apnea and catecholamine surge. Mayo Clin Proc. 2000 Jan;75(1):37-47. Review. PubMed PMID: 10630756. [Free Full Text]
  • Wilson MH, Hinds J, Grier G, Burns B, Carley S, Davies G. Impact Brain Apnoea–a forgotten cause of cardiovascular collapse in trauma. Resuscitation. 2016. [article]

FOAM and web resources

Critical Care


Chris is an Intensivist and ECMO specialist at the Alfred ICU in Melbourne. He is also a Clinical Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University. He is a co-founder of the Australia and New Zealand Clinician Educator Network (ANZCEN) and is the Lead for the ANZCEN Clinician Educator Incubator programme. He is on the Board of Directors for the Intensive Care Foundation and is a First Part Examiner for the College of Intensive Care Medicine. He is an internationally recognised Clinician Educator with a passion for helping clinicians learn and for improving the clinical performance of individuals and collectives.

After finishing his medical degree at the University of Auckland, he continued post-graduate training in New Zealand as well as Australia’s Northern Territory, Perth and Melbourne. He has completed fellowship training in both intensive care medicine and emergency medicine, as well as post-graduate training in biochemistry, clinical toxicology, clinical epidemiology, and health professional education.

He is actively involved in in using translational simulation to improve patient care and the design of processes and systems at Alfred Health. He coordinates the Alfred ICU’s education and simulation programmes and runs the unit’s education website, INTENSIVE.  He created the ‘Critically Ill Airway’ course and teaches on numerous courses around the world. He is one of the founders of the FOAM movement (Free Open-Access Medical education) and is co-creator of litfl.com, the RAGE podcast, the Resuscitology course, and the SMACC conference.

His one great achievement is being the father of three amazing children.

On Twitter, he is @precordialthump.

| INTENSIVE | RAGE | Resuscitology | SMACC

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