A Stay In The ICU Can Affect Your Brain. Here’s Why


When people undergo a lengthy stay in the ICU, they can come out with neurological or behavioral health issues. It’s a worrisome issue that doctors see often—and even more so since so many people have been in the ICU with severe, life-threatening cases of COVID-19. Symptoms such as brain fog, memory problems, attention problems and in some cases, psychosis, have been reported in patients with serious illnesses.

“There are several theories as to why this could happen,” says Brad Merker, Ph. D., a neuropsychologist with Henry Ford Health. “With COVID-19 specifically, the virus can enter the brain through the olfactory nerves (which detect smells), so neurological issues could be partly due to the virus itself invading the brain.”

COVID-19 and other severe viral infections can also cause encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. When this happens, the infection has caused someone’s immune system to go into overdrive, prompting what’s called a cytokine storm. The immune system destroys cells and damages organs like the brain, liver, heart and kidneys.

Behavioral Health Issues Related To ICU Stays

Behavioral health issues such as depression, anxiety and PTSD could also result from experiencing life-threatening conditions. If the illness has caused changes in the brain (such as with encephalitis), it can lead to personality changes or the development of anxiety and depression.

The trauma of an ICU experience could also be a culprit. Entering the ICU with COVID-19—especially during a global pandemic—can take its toll on mental health. “Especially in the beginning, when the pandemic started, patients were isolated in the ICU with no means to contact their family,” says Dr. Merker. “Everything was new. We didn’t know much about this virus. People were anxious. It is anxiety inducing. In some cases, it’s a very long haul to get back to normal, just because of the severe toll COVID-19 takes on the body.”

And it’s not just with COVID-19: Any ICU stay means you’re in a serious, life-threatening situation, which is incredibly scary and traumatic. The disruption of your life, the fear of the outcome or the possibility of enduring long-term health problems, the loss of control, and a complicated rehab process afterward are all factors that can impact your mental health. 

What You Can Do To Heal

Luckily, many of these issues—both neurological and behavioral—are treatable. “People do get better," says Dr. Merker. "Some people have persistent problems, whether it’s related to cognitive thinking or mood, but we have effective treatments to address neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, along with medication for PTSD and depression."

If you have been in the ICU and you don’t feel like yourself, write down your symptoms and how they are impacting your life, and share these notes with your primary care doctor. Your doctor can refer you to a neuropsychologist who can best diagnose your issue and help you come up with a treatment plan.

It’s also a good idea to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising if you’re able to, and ensuring any other underlying health issues are under control. Doing so will create an optimal environment for you to recover. 

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Experiencing lingering cognitive, emotional or mental health issues? Brain health evaluations are available for people ages 55 and older who have had an ICU stay within the past year. Learn more.

Dr. Brad Merker, Ph. D., is a neuropsychologist with Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, Henry Ford Medical Center in Dearborn and Henry Ford Health – 1 Ford Place in Detroit.

Categories: FeelWell