Retrograde Amnesia: How Can I Regain My Memory?

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Reader’s Question

I was recently in a major auto accident where both my car and a car that hit mine were totaled. I was making a left turn at an intersection and was hit by a vehicle coming from the opposite direction. The air bag deployed, and I suffered injuries causing me to be hospitalized for a couple of days, but I was not knocked out; I could even get out of the car immediately after the accident. I remember the accident itself only to the extent of the air bag deploying into my face, but I didn’t see the vehicle that hit me. My concern is that I cannot remember what the circumstances were immediately prior to the accident. I don’t feel that I have memory loss for past memories other than that, but I would surely like to know the details at that time. It has been over a month since the accident, and I’m not having any cognitive problems that I’m aware of.

Is this possibly retrograde amnesia and, if so, is there any likelihood that I would be able to retrieve these details with counseling or treatment?

Psychologist’s Reply

I am sorry to hear that you were in an automobile accident, and I am glad you were not more severely injured. Retrograde amnesia, as you described, is amnesia for events preceding a disorder or event, such as an auto accident. Retrograde amnesia can stretch back in time anywhere from a few minutes to years prior to the event. Anterograde amnesia is a memory deficit in which an individual experiences impairment in creating new memories following a disorder or event. You have mentioned that you do not seem to have other memory problems, such as loss of memories that go further back in time or difficulty remembering new information. This is good news! You remember the airbag deploying, and you remember walking around after the accident. It would seem from this that your memory is quite intact despite the shock and potential trauma you experienced. I do not know whether it would have been the airbag deployment or the impact of the cars hitting each other that caused this, or both. In any case, someone who was hospitalized after an accident in which both cars are totaled and airbags go off is bound to experience some effects as the body and brain recover.

Symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI) vary depending on the severity. Mild TBI symptoms can include symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, memory loss, visual disturbances, poor attention/concentration, irritability, dizziness, or nausea. Symptoms of more severe TBI can include difficulty speaking, and confusion, among other things. Severe brain injury is defined partly by how long a person was unconscious (e.g. more than 6 hours), according to the Glasgow Coma Scale.

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You stated that it has been a month since the accident. Retrograde amnesia is something that one recovers from over time, so it may be that you will recover some or all of the lost memories of those minutes prior to the accident. However, it can be that the memory of the time leading up to the event cannot be recovered, perhaps because the accident interrupted the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory.

I am not aware of any medicine that would be used to treat retrograde amnesia. Therapy, such as cognitive rehabilitation, is usually recommended following more significant brain injury to help people regain brain function that was lost. This is typically focused on assisting people in relearning communication, executive functions (e.g. planning, organization), and language.

There are self-help books such as The Memory Workbook [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], by Douglas J. Mason, Psy.D., and Michael L. Kohn, Psy.D. This book, in particular, explains types of memory, how memory is affected by aging and injury, and offers practical exercises for brain injury rehabilitation. I suggest this because you appear to be motivated to work on memory, and because this book could probably benefit many people. However, you might not find that memory exercises such as the ones found in this book help you recover those few moment before the accident.

Again, brain injury sustained in car accidents can range in severity, even without loss of consciousness. As you continue to recover from your trauma, you might notice additional changes. If you have concerns about your memory beyond what you have written here, or notice that you are having difficulty learning or remembering new information or experiencing mood changes, you might consider following up again with your medical practitioner.

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