Brain injury is a widely recognized concept, but many are not aware that it is an umbrella term. There are multiple forms of brain injury that are classified based on when, how, and where brain tissue damage occurs. Brain injuries have diverse effects, lending to the saying that no two are alike.
To acknowledge Brain Injury Awareness Month this March, we shed light on all things brain injury:
- What are the different types of brain injury?
- What are the effects of a brain injury?
- What are the long-term outcomes of a brain injury?
Brain injuries can classified according to a person's age at the time of injury as well as how they received the injury.
Congenital: A brain injury that is present from birth. Types of congenital brain injuries include Chiari malformation, encephaloceles, and anencephaly. Cerebral palsy is also usually a congenital brain injury.
Acquired: A brain injury that occurs after the time of birth.
Traumatic: A brain injury that occurs due to an external force acting upon the brain. This can result from causes including a fall, a blow to the head, whiplash, or a penetrating force like a bullet or knife.
Non-traumatic: A brain injury that occurs due to an internal force or event. This can result from causes including a stroke, a brain tumor, an infection, or oxygen deprivation.
Additional Classifications of Brain Injury
In addition to the categories above, brain injuries can be characterized by their impact (mild, moderate, or severe), whether the skull is intact or broken at the time of injury, and whether the injury occurs in a localized or widespread area.
It's not necessary for survivors to understand their injuries in this much detail. What is most important to note is that, due to the variability of brain injury, survivors can not be stereotyped. Not all survivors are affected the same way.
A brain injury can have very different effects based on where it occurred in the brain. Here are some bodily functions that can be affected by brain injury:
Movement: An injury to one side of the brain can affect movement on the opposite side of the body. Some brain injury survivors experience hemiplegia, or one-sided weakness, that interferes with their ability to use their arms and legs.
Other movement-related effects of a brain injury include ataxia (incoordination), apraxia (problems with planning movement), and loss of the sense of balance.
Speech: Brain injury can cause difficulties in both producing and understanding speech. If the brain injury causes facial muscle weakness, an individual may have difficulty making the correct lip movements to form words clearly.
Brain injuries affecting specific speech centers can result in aphasia, or the inability to form or interpret language that is not due to muscle weakness.
Thinking: The brain regulates cognitive processes that control behavior, also known as executive functions. Based on the location of damage, a brain injury survivor may have difficulty with skills including attention, memory, problem-solving, and self-control.
Brain injuries can also affect a person's insight, impacting a survivor's awareness of their own condition or happenings in the world around them.
Vision: Brain injuries affecting vision centers can reduce the ability to see. Some injuries cause visual neglect, resulting in the inability to pay attention to part of the visual field. Other brain injuries can cause temporary or permanent vision loss.
Brain Injury: An Invisible Disability
Brain injuries are often referred to as invisible disabilities because their effects are not always readily apparent. Unlike a broken bone in a cast, an injured brain isn't always as easy to spot up-front.
It's important to understand that brain injuries can cause performance problems, but do not assume that a brain injury survivor needs help unless they have specifically asked for assistance. Many survivors function independently. Others use adaptive strategies that allow them to take care of themselves with additional support.
It's not possible to perfectly predict long-term outcomes of a brain injury. Factors including older age at the time of injury and greater extent of damage are associated with reduced independence. Still, there are many effects that a brain injury survivor can control to make a difference in their recovery.
Timely therapy treatment improves outcomes: Multiple studies have found that earlier and more rehab results in better outcomes for acute brain injury. As a brain injury can affect multiple body systems, it's important to get evaluated by physical, occupational, and speech therapists right away as their treatments can lay the groundwork for a successful recovery.
Individuals who are further along from an initial brain injury can still benefit from rehabilitation. Multiple studies show that those with chronic brain injury can still make significant changes in areas including motor function following intensive training programs.
Exercise improves outcomes: Survivors don't need to be in a therapy program to engage in exercise that is helpful to their recovery. Many exercises promoting neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize itself to regain lost functions, can be performed at home with everyday objects.
In addition to strengthening muscles and keeping weight under control, exercise is shown to boost mood and perceived quality of life after brain injury, two factors that promote better recovery.
Social support improves outcomes: Social support is one of the most important elements that can influence brain injury recovery. Research reveals that stronger social networks after brain injury can reduce depression and increase activity participation.
Social support can take many forms, whether it is immediate family, friends in the community, or a virtual peer network. Although it seems difficult, evidence points to the payoff of building solid relationships.
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- Alison Scarpa, OTR/L, CSRSAlison is an occupational therapist and medical device specialist dedicated to helping patients and healthcare providers identify high-tech solutions that optimize performance.