Brain injuries of all severities require follow-up attention

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Think about it: The words “brain injury” don’t inspire a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings.

Yet many people may identify with those words more than even they may realize. Have you ever had a concussion? Have you bumped your head during a car accident? Have you suffered a stroke? Have you fallen and hit your head? Or have you ever suffered an assault that caused a head injury?

Brain injuries cover a wide gamut of head injuries – from mild to moderate to severe. Most of us believe that only severe brain injuries require follow-up care, such as a neuropsychological consult; physical, occupational or speech therapy; or counseling. And the statistics tend to agree with that. Out of 1.4 million who went to the emergency room for a traumatic brain injury last year, 1.1 million were treated simply for their acute injuries and released without any further care.

BUT EVEN THOSE who suffer mild brain injuries such as concussion can report post-injury issues, from memory problems and fuzzy thinking to depression and unusual mood changes. These issues not only affect the patient but also have an impact on family dynamics. And neither the patient nor the family may even realize what caused these changes. After all, it was just a little head bump.

Most commonly, what happens next is that the patient struggles on alone, increasingly isolated. Those anger problems, that depression, that struggle to think clearly – they’re still there. And, according to recent studies, the effects of a brain injury can last for years or even decades after the initial injury.

But a funny little thing called brain plasticity can make a huge difference in a patient’s recovery. It’s exactly what it sounds like: The brain truly is a “plastic” thing – able to learn, adapt and recover, if we provide it with the right kind of therapy and rehabilitation. While it’s best if this help comes immediately after the injury, forward strides can be seen even if help comes years later.

Just like any injury that leaves a scar, an injury to the brain always will leave a mark, and the people may never be exactly the same as they were. But with the right help, survivors of brain injuries can recover.

COGNITIVE REHABILITATION can help them exercise and improve logic and processing. Counseling can relieve depression (did you know that after a brain injury, survivors are 20 times more likely to suffer from a mood disorder?). Group therapy can boost their quality of life and ability to return to work.

Most importantly, both patients and families can benefit from adjustment to medical illness counseling. A brain injury, after all, doesn’t just affect a single person – it affects the entire family.

A holistic approach that considers what both the patient and the family are going through can change the term “brain injury.” It can change from a frightening thing to a defined diagnosis, where the patient, family and health care providers each know their roles and what they need to do to ensure the best recovery.

(The writer is an Augusta neuropsychologist. March is Brain Injury Awareness Month.)

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