About ABI’s

An acquired brain injury (ABI) is often called the “hidden disability” because it affects intangible processes like thinking and behaviour and are therefore not as easy to see and recognise as many other physical disabilities.

As a consequence, the difficulties people with brain injuries face are easily ignored, overlooked or misunderstood, coupled with the fact that there is very little understanding or knowledge in the community about brain injury and the impact it has on individuals and families. People also often find it difficult to understand brain injury because its effects are so varied and not easy to describe.

Acquired brain injury (ABI) is not the same as to be confused with intellectual disability (people do not necessarily experience a decline in their overall intelligence) or mental illness (which does not, by definition, arise from a physical condition, whereas ABI is.).

The term ABI is used to describe all types of brain injury that occur after birth. It is a complex experience for the both the person that suffers from the injury and their family, friends and relatives with varying types and degrees of effects (no two persons can expect the same outcome or resulting difficulties).

The brain controls the physical, intellectual, behavioural, social and emotional parts of life. When the brain is damaged, some part of a person's life will be adversely affected. Even a mild injury can sometimes result in a serious disability that will interfere with a person’s daily functioning and personal activities for the rest of their life. Such interferences require a major life adjustment around the person's new circumstances, and making that adjustment is a critical factor in recovery and rehabilitation. While the outcome of a given injury depends largely upon the nature and severity of the injury itself, appropriate treatment plays a vital role in determining the level of recovery.

The long term effects of brain injury are difficult to predict. They will be different for each person and can range from mild to profound. Severity can range from mild concussion to extreme coma or even death. For many people who sustain a brain injury these changes may gradually improve. However, at the time of their injury it is impossible to predict how they will recover or how long it will take.

Impact on the individual
The following are examples of the affects that occur to an individual who has an ABI. The level of these effects is dependent on the seriousness or severity of the brain injury, the location of the brain damage and how well the person has integrated back into the community.

Cognitive effects include:

  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Easily confused and overwhelmed
  • Problems in learning new information
  • Reduced memory for new information
  • Problem-solving, planning and organising difficulties
  • Stuck on ideas and fixed patterns of thinking
  • Difficulty starting activities
  • Slower at processing information

Physical effects include:

  • Headaches
  • Changes in smell or taste
  • Weakness
  • Clumsiness
  • Inability to move an arm or leg
  • Sensitivity to light and/or noise
  • Extensive fat
  • Seizures
  • Changes in hearing
  • Changes in vision
  • Difficulty sleeping

Emotional changes include:

  • Sadness and/or grief
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Changes in personality, including difficulties in emotional control
  • Use of substances such as drugs or alcohol
  • Irritability
  • "Before/now" comparisons

    The consequences of a person having an ABI are extensive and coming to terms with any loss of functioning and going through the rigours of rehabilitation can be difficult and at times distressing. The long term consequence of these effects these may result in loss of employment, lack of social opportunities, isolation and withdrawal and impaired family relations.

Impact on the family

Difficulties experienced by family members, friends and partners of an individual who has an ABI may include:

  • Dealing with the emotional and practical burdens, the interruptions to family life and role changes.
  • Adapting to a completely new way of life and new kinds of relationships
  • Coping with the significant personality and behavioural changes that can arise
  • Experiencing their own adjustment difficulties
  • Having to support different family members in addition to the person with an injury which leaves very little room for their own personal needs
  • Carers often have very little chance to cope with their own grief and personal needs
  • Family members often cope with the person’s injury in different ways and some may not even acknowledge that the injury exists.
  • Lack of understanding of what the individual with the ABI is going through.
  • Unrecognised cumulative stress of carer, which can be detrimental to a person’s long-term health

Tips for survival for carers include:

Having enough information about the effects of ABI

  • Appreciating the difficulties that might be encountered
  • Understanding that recovery is a slow process
  • Staying with the present, rather than brooding about how catastrophic the future may be
  • Highlighting the strengths and daily achievements, rather than the weaknesses
  • Making time to care for themselves
  • Being wise enough to ask for help when it is needed