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General Brain Injury Information

Definition of Acquired Brain Injury

An acquired brain injury is defined as:

Damage to the brain, which occurs after birth and is not related to a congenital or a degenerative disease. These impairments may be temporary or permanent and cause partial or functional disability or psychosocial maladjustment.

- World Health Organization (Geneva 1996)

What is traumatic brain injury?

Traumatic brain injury is sudden physical damage to the brain.

The damage may be caused by the head forcefully hitting an object such as the dashboard of a car (closed head injury) or by something passing through the skull and piercing the brain, as in a gunshot wound (penetrating head injury). The major causes of head trauma are motor vehicle accidents. Other causes include falls, sports injuries, violent crimes, and child abuse.

Most injuries cause focal brain damage, damage confined to a small area of the brain. The focal damage is most often at the point where the head hits an object or where an object, such as a bullet, enters the brain.

In addition to focal damage, closed head injuries frequently cause diffuse brain injuries or damage to several other areas of the brain. The diffuse damage occurs when the impact of the injury causes the brain to move back and forth against the inside of the bony skull. The frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, the major speech and language areas, often receive the most damage in this way because they sit in pockets of the skull that allow more room for the brain to shift and sustain injury. Because these major speech and language areas often receive damage, communication difficulties and behavioral issues frequently occur following closed head injuries. Other problems may include voice, swallowing, walking, balance, and coordination difficulties, as well as changes in the ability to smell and in memory and cognitive (or thinking) skills.

What is non-traumatic brain injury?

As stated above, traumatic brain injury is usually caused by a force being applied to the head from outside the skull. In contrast, non-traumatic brain injury is an injury to the brain that is caused by a process or event that occurs with the skull or brain.

Specifically, acquired brain injuries are caused by:

  • Traumatic forces to the head which cause damage to the brain
  • Stroke
  • Aneurism
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Infections in the brain
  • Toxic exposure
  • Fluid build-up in the brain
  • Brain tumors

Acquired brain injuries can result in changes to how a person functions in the following areas:

  • Physical Changes
  • Cognitive Changes
  • Emotional Changes
  • Social Changes


From 2006-2008 in Alberta there were on average 2,227 hospital admissions each year with a traumatic head injury.

Males had twice as many head injury hospital admissions as females.

Males accounted for 70% of the admissions with an average of 1,565 admissions each year.

Falls were the leading cause of traumatic head injuries and accounted for 40% of the admissions with an average of 892 admissions each year.

For males, falls accounted for 35% of the head injury admissions with an average of 555 admissions each year.

For females, falls accounted for 50% of the head injury admissions with an average of 337 admissions each year.

Motor vehicle collisions were the second leading cause of head injury admissions and accounted for 27% with an average of 602 admissions each year.

For males, motor vehicle collisions accounted for 26% of the head injury admissions with an average of 425 admissions each year.

For females, motor vehicle collisions accounted for 27% of the head injury admissions with an average of 177 admissions each year.

“What is Brain Injury” and Statistics is adapted from the Injury the following websites: and

Head Injuries in Canada: Facts

  •        In 2003-2004 there was 194,771 hospitalization’s for trauma in Canada
  •        Those hospitalization’s resulted in 1,918,860 days in hospital
  •        In the same year, 6,857 injury cases died.
  •        Of the trauma hospitalization’s, 16,811 were traumatic head injuries.
  •        This equates to 46 admissions per day in Canada for traumatic head injury.
  •        Head trauma accounts for 9% of all trauma admissions.
  •        The two age groups with the highest admission rates were youth (0-19) and age 60 and greater.
  •        There was 1,368 head trauma related deaths.
  •        This death rate is 8% (twice the rate for all traumatic injury).
  •        The major mechanisms of injury were falls, MVC and assault.
  •        Sports and recreational activities were the third leading cause of traumatic head injury in Canada.
  •        Over all the trend for rate of injuries is decreasing, but the severity is increasing.


  1.      Canadians aged 60 years and older, who fall, remain a major concern for head trauma.
  2.      The proportion of older Canadians dying after admission for traumatic head injury has increased by 35%
  3.      Children and youth are the largest group admitted to Canadian hospitals due to traumatic head injury.

Reference: Canadian Institute for health Information; “Head Injuries in Canada: A Decade of Change (1994-1995 to 2003-2004); August 2006; p1-18


What Can You Do?

Strategies That Assist Persons Who Have Sustained a Brain Injury

The effects of a brain injury can be as varied and unique as the individuals who sustain them. Since brain injuries occur in different areas of the brain with varying degrees of severity to different types of people, no two people will be effected in the same way. An injury to the brain may effect a person in several ways including personality, thinking, communications, or mobility.

Many of the changes that a person with a brain injury experiences cannot be seen. It is often more difficult for others to understand and accept changes in personality and thought processes, as these changes are not visible.

Following a brain injury, the person may experience any number of effects in varying degrees. Individuals working with a person with a brain injury will need to be particularly sensitive, observant and flexible.

Some of the more common effects of a brain injury are changes in:

What are the Effects of Brain Injury
Response Time
Planning and Problem Solving
Control of Anger
Socially Inappropriate Behaviour
Emotional Liability

What are the Effects of Brain Injury

Effects of Brain Injury

The brain is an extremely complex organ. An injury to the brain can result in a variety of effects with varying levels of severity, and can have a devastating impact on a person’s life.

Although each individual is unique, the symptoms resulting from a brain injury often have similarities. Some of these symptoms can include difficulty with memory loss, impaired reasoning skills, and a tendency toward “one track thinking.” Brain injury is not always visible; it is referred to as the “unseen injury.”

Imagine not remembering names and faces of lifelong friends or turning on a burner with a pot on it and not remembering having done so. Imagine how difficult it would be to rely on others to plan your day.

Many persons with brain injuries will also have physical disabilities such as paralysis of the limbs, frequently on one side of the body, or loss of vision and/or hearing. Some people experience varying degrees of speech impairment. Others may be able to speak, but due to cognitive impairments, have difficulty organizing their thoughts into meaningful speech. Some people lose their sense of smell, experience debilitating fatigue, suffer from severe headaches or have to cope with having seizures. Many people must cope with a combination of losses.

Emotional effects vary as well. The person with a brain injury may have changes in emotional control. This may be related directly to the brain injury or to the frustrations that the person feels as he tries to adapt to his new self.

Imagine the embarrassment of not being able to stop crying when you aren’t feeling sad.

Realization of the effects of the injury combined with an increased dependence on others and/or a loss of control over one’s life may be cause for depression to occur. Depression may also be caused by the physical damage to the brain.

The social consequences of a head injury can be devastating. Many people report losing old friends and having difficulty cultivating and maintaining new friendships. These difficulties may result from the person experiencing problems with communication. Imagine the frustration of having difficulty remembering ideas and communicating them coherently and logically during a conversation. In addition, subtle social skills may have been lost. Loudness of speech and knowing when it is appropriate to speak are examples of social skills we all take for granted.

Having described the many challenges facing people living with the effects of a brain injury, it is important to note the strength and character of many of these people. Once again all persons are unique with varying injuries, personalities and supports available. Although there may be a tremendous amount of loss to cope with, many people with brain injuries remain determined, sensitive and positive in their approach to life.

Although the effects of a brain injury may make it necessary for the injured person to have assistance for up to 24 hours in a day, families often remain or become the primary caregiver and support persons. Many families are left to cope on their own, with little understanding of the effects of the injury and the demands of living with an injured family member. They may become the brunt of the brain injured person’s frustrations. Families need the support of others who understand the stress within these family systems.



People with brain injuries may have difficulty remembering names, appointments, phone messages or details of newspaper articles. They may forget where they have put things and they may become easily disoriented. Extreme recent memory difficulties may prevent the person from remembering conversations, details or direction within a few minutes of having received them. Although some memory problems may be lessened as the brain recovers from the injury, a memory problem cannot be “cured.” The best way to deal with it is to develop ways to compensate for it. The goal is to minimize the effects of the memory problem on the person’s life.

By developing ways to compensate for a memory problem the person may gain a greater sense of independence and control.

One strategy is to encourage the person with a brain injury to carry a notebook to record names, addresses and telephone numbers. The same notebook can be used to record details of how to get from one place to another or to outline what must be done in a day. Family members and service providers may need to help the person develop the habit of writing things in the notebook and to refer to it regularly. Likewise, the individual may also need help in developing a method for recording the information clearly. The use of tape recorders or electronic day timers may also be useful in certain situations such as in the classroom or at the office.

Other strategies include using bulletin boards and calendars to record information in strategic locations. Lists identifying important items in the home and where they are stored could be posted for easy reference. Instructions for some tasks could be written down and kept handy. In this way, you do not need to keep repeating the instructions.


A person with a brain injury may be easily distracted and unable to concentrate. Activities that were enjoyed before the injury may no longer be enjoyable due to decreased ability to concentrate. This may appear to an outsider as a lack of interest. Too many distractions may also interfere with the person’s ability to focus his attention on one activity.

Strategies can be used to offset the effects of poor concentration and attention on the person’s life. One way is to lessen any distractions. This may mean turning off the radio or television and reducing the number of people in the room at one time.

When helping a person with a brain injury to schedule activities, encourage short periods of activities with regular breaks. Incorporating activities which require less concentration, such as physical activities like walking or working in the garden, may be useful at times.

If the person is interested in reading, recommend short stories or magazine articles until he is able to handle more concentrated reading.

Response Time

As a result of a brain injury the person may need more time to answer questions, to keep up in a conversation and to perform tasks.

Allow ample time for the person to respond and to complete tasks so that he will not feel frustrated.

Avoid posing multiple questions. Arrange conversation with one topic and/or one question being addressed at a time.

Planning and Problem Solving

Planning and problem solving is a complex process and may be difficult
for a person with brain injury.

One method of compensating for this is to break tasks into steps. For a particularly complex task, suggest that the person define the steps clearly and write them down. Each step can then be checked off as it is completed.

It may be useful to help the person identify several possible solutions to a problem. Decision making may be easier if the person can choose from two or three alternatives.


It may be difficult and sometimes impossible for a person with a brain injury to start a task. The person may be able to identify what needs to occur, but not be able to actually get started. This may be a result of the injury – and does not necessarily mean that the person is lazy. Sometimes fatigue or depression may contribute to the person having difficulty with self-initiation.

Help the person structure his day to avoid periods of inactivity. Activities for each day can be recorded in a step by step fashion on a schedule. By following the schedule the person can lessen the need to take initiative.
Using an alarm or a watch as a reminder to refer to the schedule may also be helpful. The ability to rely on the schedule rather than on constant reminders from others will help to create a feeling of independence.

Encourage the person to get plenty of rest and to become aware of when he is becoming tired.


Changing a train of thought or seeing another person’s point of view may be a challenge for the person with a brain injury. Sudden changes in routine may be difficult and confusing.

It may be helpful for the family member or service provider to offer other points of view from their perspective, but they should be careful to avoid arguments and confrontations. Sometimes the person may need assistance shifting their focus.

Maintain routines and structure as much as possible. Try to avoid sudden changes in routine, which can confuse the person.
Give advance notice and explanation for change as much as possible so that the person will feel prepared.


An injury to the brain may effect the person’s ability to monitor thought processes and behaviour. This may make it very difficult for the person to understand and accept his own unseen injuries and effects of that injury. It is extremely important that family members and service providers are sensitive to these issues.

The person with a brain injury needs clear and simple explanations of his disabilities if he tries to deny or rationalize them. Arguments should be avoided, as they will only upset both
people. Over time the person may gain insight into the effects of their injury.


A brain injury may affect the control system, which enables a person to stop and think before he acts. The person with a brain injury may be overly impulsive which can lead to embarrassing or potentially dangerous situations.

Family members or service providers will need to encourage the person to slow down and think before acting. It may be useful to develop a system of cueing the person to slow down. Cues may include body language, verbal gestures, specific phrases or words to name a few. Eventually you may be able to help the person to develop a way to cue himself.

Control of Anger

Following a brain injury, the person may have a lower tolerance for frustration, leading to problems with controlling anger. It is important to remember that irritability may be the result of the brain injury. Try not to take the anger personally.

Attempt to identify the kinds of things that irritate the person and try to avoid these situations.

When outbursts occur, if possible, remove the person from the situation that provoked the outburst, leave the room yourself, or change the subject. When the person has calmed down, discuss better ways of dealing with the situation next time and let him know that you are willing to help him. Do not be critical and do not hold grudges.

Help all family members, friends and fellow employees develop strategies to react consistently when the person with a brain injury becomes irritable or aggressive.


Another example of poor self-monitoring following a brain injury is to talk excessively. You can deal tactfully with this behaviour by changing the subject, by letting the person know that he is repeating what he has said or by telling him that you have something else to discuss. Above all, try to respond consistently.

Socially Inappropriate Behaviour

Judging social situations may be difficult for a person with a brain injury.

It may be helpful to try coaching the person before social events. One should never reinforce inappropriate behavior or embarrass the person by responding to it or by trying to cover up the situation.

Sometimes depending on the behavior, the best approach is to overlook it for the time being. This situation can then be discussed with the person in private. Once again, it may be helpful to develop cues to assist the person to identify inappropriate behaviour.


Due to the many possible effects of a brain injury a person may become overly dependent on others.

It is advisable to encourage the person to remain active and maintain friendships.

Be careful not to let yourself become his only friend. A brain injury support group may be an opportunity for the person to develop a new group of friends.

Avoid the temptation to be overprotective. A person with a brain injury should have as much responsibility as can be managed. The person will need to take risks to challenge himself and be successful. This may help to increase the person’s independence, confidence and self-esteem.

Emotional Liability

Frequent crying or laughing at inappropriate times may indicate that the person with a brain injury has trouble controlling his emotions. This can be embarrassing to both the individual and to those with him.

Even though the response may be intense, the underlying emotion my not be that strong. It may be useful to discuss this difficulty privately with the
person in an open and direct manner. Ask the person what he finds helpful.

When the person is successful at controlling his emotions, acknowledge and support him.


A person with a brain injury may suffer from depression that is either physiologically based (resulting in neurological changes from the injury to the brain itself) or psychological (resulting from the emotional adjustment to the effects of the brain injury). If the depression is physiologically based, then the person may have less control over his depression.

In either case it is important to be supportive. It is recommended that the assistance of a trained counselor with an understanding of brain injury be sought. Counseling is generally helpful; however, on occasion, medication may be required.

Finally, it is crucial that family members and others who spend a lot of time with people who have brain injuries, look after themselves. They should be encouraged to take time out to relax and enjoy themselves. It is only with adequate self care that they will be capable of providing the help and support to the person with a brain injury.

(The pronoun “He” is used in this document and should be read as referring also to the feminine gender when circumstances or context so require.)