What is an Acquired Brain Injury?

It’s often called a ‘hidden disability’, but acquired brain injuries affect around 1 in 45 Australians. How does having an Acquired Brain Injury [ABI] impact the everyday lives of the more than 430,000 Australians who live with one?

As Insight guests share their experiences of how suffering a brain injury has changed their lives, personalities, work and their relationships to those who love and care for them, what's the science behind ABIs? 

What it is an acquired brain injury?

An Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) is a term used to refer to any brain damage received after birth. Around 432,000 Australians have an ABI, almost three-quarters of who are under the age of 65, according to a 2003 survey Australian Bureau of Statistics.

ABIs can occur for a range of reasons: from accidents causing brain trauma, to strokes, tumors, neurological diseases, infections and alcohol.  

Strokes are believed to be the leading cause of ABIs and around 55,000 Australians have a new or recurring stroke each year.  The second highest cause of ABIs is believed to be accidents causing trauma to the brain.

Roughly three out of every four people with an ABI are under the age 65. However some of the causes of ABIs, such as strokes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and falls do become more common in older people. 

How are acquired brain injuries diagnosis and treated?

Following a stroke or accident computerized tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are often performed on the patient’s brain to analyze any potential damage. The scans allow doctors to get a detailed view of the brain and uncover evidence of bleeding, bruising or swelled brain tissue. 

Even though doctors can see the damage, it is difficult to predict exactly how someone will recover from a brain injury. There are many factors which contribute to the long-term impact a brain injury will have on someone’s life.

These factors range from the person’s age and general health, to which part of the brain is damaged and how quickly they received the initial treatment after the injury. 

Generally there are three stages in a person’s recovery following an ABI. These stages include: the acute medical stage of initial intensive medical treatment; the rehabilitation stage of intensive therapy to assist recovery and reduce long-term effects; and the long-term rehabilitation to help patients return to the community, work and everyday living. 

What is the impact of an acquired brain injury?

The impact of an ABI varies from between different patients. They can range from ongoing comas and extreme difficulties performing basic functions, to behavioral changes and memory loss.

Katie and Shane Cummins discovered their daughter Isabelle had an arachnoid cyst on her brain when she was four and a half years old. During the surgery to remove the cyst, the release of built-up pressure on her brain caused an ABI.

Katie tells Insight Isabelle’s behavior has changed dramatically as a result of the ABI and she now has extreme mood swings.  “She has no control over her temper or what she says and how she feels. So sometimes she might love so greatly and then other times she can hate so greatly,” Katie says.  

Leola Small had to have multiple surgeries on her brain after having a brain aneurysm in 2010. Her ABI has caused her to be permanently deaf in one ear, but Leola, who high functioning, also says it’s resulted in a positive personality changes.

“Before the injury I was quite, I guess I can say it now, arrogant, stubborn,” Leola says. “I think I’ve done a full turn around. I embrace life more because I do know that you can get hit by a bus or your brain will blow up any point in time”. 

What’s the road to rehabilitation and recovery?

The recovery process from an ABI differs significantly between patients due to individual circumstances. After patients leave the acute sector of a hospital they often spend a period of time in a rehabilitation ward or an ABI specialist rehab unit. When they are discharged to the community patients are designated case workers to assist with the rehabilitation process.

Professor Perminder Sachdev says while the brain has a capacity to regenerate after an ABI, he says few patients return to their full abilities after an ABI. He also says there needs to better rehabilitation facilities available and different types of facilities including more physical rehabilitation options.  

“We have to make our rehabilitation programs more comprehensive and look at other aspects of rehabilitation as well,” Perminder says.

Lisa Bryant’s daughter Ricky has a seizure when in 2015 at 23 years old and went from being very independent to requiring her mother’s full time care.  Lisa is no longer able to go to work, but along with the financial struggle, she says there has been an emotional toll of caring for her daughter who is now unable to perform basic function.

“You take what happens, you care for the child that you have, as a mother that’s what you do. But as well, you know, I’ve lost my daughter,” Lisa says. 

“Brain injury is often called a continuous grief because it’s not like she died,” she says. “We have a structure for grieving when someone dies. We don’t have a structure for a survival of a totally different person than it was that you had before”. 

Insight: A Hidden Injury

Insight hears the emotional stories of Australian families dealing with life after an acquired brain injury. Catch up online now: