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Head Banging in Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Why is my Dad with Alzheimer’s dementia banging his head? And what can I do about it?

It can be very scary to see your loved one banging her head against the wall or hitting his head against the doorframe or headboard.

“The first time I saw it, I didn’t worry about it too much. A lot of strange things happen now that he has dementia, and I try not to stress out about each new thing. But then he started hitting his head more and more frequently, and now he’s banging his head so often that I worry he’ll hurt himself.”

Repeated head banging is fairly common in people with Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Pick’s, Parkinson’s, dementia with Lewy bodies, and other forms of dementia. It might be more common in men than in women.

The Reasons

All humans have a deeply ingrained need for repetitive, rhythmic movement. Even before we are born, we are jostled about in our mother’s womb. Babies and children have been rocked to sleep for centuries because the rhythmic, swinging motion is deeply soothing and comforting. It is natural for us to continue to need and seek rhythmic movement throughout our lives – running, dancing, swinging our arms as we walk, tapping our toes to music. Why do you think we invented rocking chairs and hammocks?

Unfortunately, as people age and experience mental and physical problems, it can become more difficult for them to move freely and experience rhythmic movement. One or all of the reasons below might contribute to why someone with dementia has started repeatedly banging her head.

Self-Soothing

Head banging can be a way for people with dementia to comfort themselves and cope with difficult emotions. Does the person bang their head more when they seem frustrated, confused, or anxious? If so, hitting their head might be a form of tension release.

Boredom

Unfortunately, boredom, depression, and sensory deprivation are extremely common among people with dementia. That’s because, first of all, many people with dementia receive minimal sensory input because they can’t see or hear as well as they used to, their sense of taste has diminished, etc. On top of that, it is very difficult for caregivers to constantly find appropriate, meaningful activities to engage and stimulate the person with dementia. When people do not receive enough sensory input, they will start creating their own physical sensations, in whatever way they can. Sometimes that means hitting their heads.

Attention seeking

Communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia can be challenging. They might not be able to explain that they are in pain or to clearly express that something is bothering them. Head banging might be a cry for attention. Especially in less verbal patients, head banging can be a way to get attention and convey that something is wrong.

Pain relief

Some people will hit their heads against walls or furniture when they are in pain. The sensation of hitting their head can be a distraction from other pain that they are experiencing. Pay attention to warning signs of pain, such as grimacing, shortness of breath, grunting, or moaning. If you suspect that something might be causing pain, work with a medical professional to find out what is causing the pain and to determine the best treatment plan.

The Solutions

Safety first. Check with your medical professional to make sure that there is not an undiagnosed medical problem causing pain or head banging.

To help prevent injury, consider adding padding to wherever the person tends to hit his head, e.g., the back of the chair, the headrest, the door frame, a section of wall, etc.

Luckily, there are a number of ways to increase sensory input and provide meaningful activities to prevent boredom, sensory deprivation, and other causes of head banging.

Consider whether any of the following techniques are appropriate in your case:

  • Introduce a rocking chair or glider
  • Play rhythmic music to encourage toe-tapping, clapping, etc.
  • Provide musical instruments, e.g., bongo drums, maracas to create rhythmic sounds
  • Offer geriatric massage to provide comfort and physical connection
  • Increase sensory input by providing a variety of things to smell, taste, and touch
  • Use a Geraplay Activity Mat to increase meaningful sensory input and provide a safe outlet for repetitive behaviors.

Although head banging often reflects a natural tendency for rhythmic movement, it can be disturbing and potentially harmful. The more often a person hits his head against the wall the more likely it will become a habit. To prevent the behavior from becoming more frequent, try to gently distract and redirect the person as soon as he starts banging his head each time.

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