How are brain injuries evaluated?

Patients with brain injury require frequent assessments and diagnostic tests.

Tests to diagnose and assess brain injuries

Neurological exam

A series of questions and simple commands to see if the patient can open their eyes, move, speak, and understand what is going on around them.

Some examples are:

  • What is your name?
  • Where are you?
  • What day is it?
  • Wiggle your toes.
  • Hold up two fingers.

A standard way to describe patient responses may be used. Most hospitals use the Glasgow Coma Scale or Rancho Levels of Cognitive Functioning. You can read about these scales and what the scores mean in the Appendix.


A picture that looks at bones to see if they are broken (fractured). It can also be used to take a picture of the chest to look at the lungs. This test may be done at the bedside or in the X-ray department and takes between 5-30 minutes to complete.

CT scan (CAT scan)

An X-ray that takes pictures of the brain or other parts of the body. The scan is painless but the patient must lie very still. The test takes 15-30 minutes to complete.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan

A large magnet and radio waves are used, instead of X-rays, to take pictures of the body’s tissues. It is painless but noisy. The machine is shaped like a long tube. The patient must lie still on a flat table in the middle of the machine. The test takes about 60 minutes to complete.


A test to look at the blood vessels in the brain.Using a catheter, or small flexible tube, dye is put into an artery (usually in the groin) that supplies blood to the brain. This test can tell if the blood vessels have been damaged or are spasming. The test takes 1-3 hours.

ICP monitor

A small tube placed into or just on top of the brain through a small hole in the skull. This will measure the pressure inside the brain (intracranial pressure).

EEG (electroencephalograph)

A test to measure electrical activity in the brain. Special patches called electrodes are applied to the head to measure the activity. The test is painless and can be done at the bedside or in the EEG department. The length of the test varies.

Last reviewed: 
October 2016

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