About Acquired Brain Injury

Introduction

Acquired brain injury - or "ABI" - refers to any damage to the brain that occurs after birth (with the exception of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder - FASD). That damage can be caused by an accident or trauma, by a stroke, a brain infection, by alcohol or other drugs or by diseases of the brain like Parkinson's disease.

Brain Injury is common. Over 600,000 Australians have an acquired brain injury. Three out every four of them are aged under 65. As many as two out of every three of these people acquired their brain injury before they turned 25. Three out of every four people with acquired brain injury are men.

The leading cause of acquired brain injury is stroke - where the supply of blood to the brain is stopped by a clot or bleeding. It often results in physical disability as well as changes in a person's thinking and emotions. Around 60,000 new strokes occur every year - a number that's growing as Australia's population ages. Strokes normally occur in older age people, but around one in every five strokes happens to a person aged under 55.

The next largest cause of acquired brain injury is an accident or trauma – known as traumatic brain injury, or "TBI". Such an injury is a result of force applied to the head. Over 22,000 Australians  were hospitalized as a result of a traumatic brain injury in 2004-2005. Most of those Traumatic Brain Injuries - over two in every five - were caused by a fall, nearly one in three was due to a motor vehicle accident and one in six was caused by an assault.

When the brain is injured, people can experience a range of disabilities that will affect them physically as well as affecting how they think, feel and behave.

About Brain Injury

Acquired brain injury is a complex and individual condition. The brain can be damaged as a result of an accident, a stroke, alcohol or drug abuse, tumours, poisoning, infection and disease, near drowning, hemorrhage, AIDS, and a other disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The terms head injury, acquired brain injury (ABI), or acquired brain damage (ABD) are used to describe all types of brain damage which occur after birth. Acquired brain injury is distinct from intellectual disability. People with a brain injury may have difficulty controlling, coordinating and communicating their thoughts and actions but generally retain their intellectual abilities.

Brain injury has dramatically different effects  on different people. The brain controls every part of our being: physically, intellectually and emotionally. When the brain is damaged, some other part of ourselves will also be affected. Even a mild injury can result in a serious disability that will interfere with a person’s daily functioning and personal activities, often for the rest of their life. While the outcome of the injury depends largely on the nature and severity of the injury itself, appropriate treatment plays a vital role in the level of recovery.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a type of acquired brain injury (ABI) caused by a blow to the head or by the head being forced to move rapidly forward or backward, usually with some loss of consciousness. This may be the result of a motor vehicle accident, fall, assault, sporting accident, gunshot wound or violent shaking. As a result of this blow or rapid movement, the brain may be torn, stretched, penetrated, bruised or become swollen. Oxygen may not be able to get through to brain cells and there may be bleeding.

The impact on the individual

There is little understanding in the community about brain injury and the impact it can have on individuals. Long term effects are difficult to predict and will be different for each person. It is common for people with a brain injury to get tired more quickly, have difficulty with short-term memory and find it more difficult to concentrate and to remember information.

There are five areas in which people with ABI may experience long-term changes:

  • Medical difficulties
  • Changes in physical and sensory abilities
  • Changes in the ability to think and learn (cognition)
  • Changes in behaviour and personality (psychological)
  • Communication difficulties.

How serious these changes are, such as a person becoming more impulsive or getting lost easily, may only become clear over time.

The impact on the family

The significant changes in personality and behaviour of a person with a brain injury can be difficult for families to cope with. This has been descrived as the ‘ripple’ or ‘domino’ effect on the family after the injury where other family members experience their own adjustment difficulties. It can be hard for those not immediately affected to understand what a person with acquired brain injury and their family is going through. Family members often cope with the person’s injury in different ways and some may not even acknowledge that the injury exists.

Carers often find they have to support family members in addition to the person with an injury. This can mean that it is harder for carers to deal with their own grief and personal needs. Carers may also be challenged by other family members about the care they are providing. Combined with the demands of caring for a person with a brain injury this can result in carers suffering chronic stress. 

Read more about the brain

The health information in this article has been approved for publication by Dr Roger Chung.