Acquired brain injury

Acquired brain injury

What is Acquired brain injury?

An acquired brain injury can have a lasting impact on a person’s ability to move, communicate, think and remember, and can affect their life, work and relationships.

It happens when the brain is damaged any time after birth by an accident, by violence, by illness, by a stroke or by one of many other causes. The long-term effects of acquired brain injury vary from person to person, and depend on the extent of the damage.

A severe brain injury can leave people with permanent problems such as memory loss, difficulties with learning and thinking, and changes in their behaviour, emotions and personality. The person might need lifelong support and care from family members. Even if that’s the case, they might also be able to continue to learn and recover for many years.

There are many therapies and services available to help people with an acquired brain injury. While recovery can be very slow, people can learn to adapt and find new ways of doing everyday activities. Assistance is also available for families and carers of people with an acquired brain injury.


Because the brain is so central to life, people with an acquired brain injury can get a vast range of symptoms. These include general effects such as:

  • headaches and nausea
  • confusion that can come and go
  • dizziness and balance problems
  • problems with memory, concentration and attention
  • problems sleeping
  • problems with thinking and understanding.

Some people find changes to their personality and behaviour. They might be more distant, more aggressive, more emotionally fragile or more irritable than before. Some will be prone to depression and some will have mood swings.

Some people might also have:

  • paralysis
  • weakness in the arms or legs
  • seizures, fits or tremors
  • problems with eyesight
  • problems with the senses of smell or touch.

Types & Severity

The type of brain injury will depend on the cause, the area of the brain that is injured and the extent of the damage.


There are many different causes of acquired brain injury, some sudden and gradual, including:

  • trauma due to vehicle accidents, falls, violence, crime, sport or war
  • stroke, when a blood vessel to the brain is blocked or bursts
  • diseases that affect the brain such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease or AIDS
  • excess drugs or alcohol
  • poisoning by chemicals, pesticides or gases like carbon monoxide
  • brain tumours
  • lack of oxygen to the brain caused by things such as prolonged fits, heart attacks, near drowning or suicide attempts
  • infections that lead to inflammation of the brain, such as encephalitis.

Whatever the cause, the cells of the brain have become damaged either directly, or because their normal blood supply was interrupted for a time.


To reach a diagnosis of acquired brain injury, the person affected will need repeated physical examinations, and probably investigations such as computerised tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Down the track, when the acute period is over, they might need a range of tests to plan rehabilitation. The tests might include:

  • CT and/or MRI scans
  • speech and language tests
  • cognition tests which look at thinking, reasoning and understanding capability
  • tests to see how they cope with daily tasks such as eating and dressing.



The person with the acquired brain injury might need treatment for the cause of the injury. For example, someone with a stroke might need urgent treatment to dissolve a clot. Or someone with an acquired brain injury due to HIV might need medication to treat the virus.

Otherwise, the mainstay of treatment is rehabilitation. The aim of rehabilitation is to allow the person affected to regain as much as possible of their physical, cognitive and sensory abilities so they can function as well as possible in the world.

Rehabilitation is likely to start as soon as possible, and is tailored to meet the needs of the individual. It may involve a range of therapy from a multidisciplinary team including:

  • occupational therapist
  • physiotherapist
  • speech pathologist
  • psychiatrist
  • execise physiologist
  • psychologist or neuropsychologist
  • social worker
  • rehabilitation nurse
  • vocational counsellor
  • music or art therapist.

People whose disabilities continue might be referred to a special brain injury rehabilitation service – rehab can take place at home or at a specialised rehab unit.

People with an acquired brain injury might have rehabilitation for months or years. They can continue to improve throughout treatment, and can continue to improve long after rehabilitation finishes.

Living with Acquired brain injury

Everybody with an acquired brain injury is going to live their life in their own individual way. But there are some common issues that affect many, but not all, people with an acquired brain injury.

Some people will find it difficult to live independently and will need support, whether that be from their partner, from family, from friends, from a non-government and government agencies or from a combination. That support might include income support, accommodation, help with daily tasks and more.

Some people with an acquired brain injury will have changes to their mood, to their way of thinking, perhaps to their personality. If you care for someone with a brain injury, that can make it challenging for you. You might need to re-negotiate the relationship you had before. You might need to set clear boundaries. You might need to find ways to look after yourself, so you can provide all the support you want to. Carers Australia and the Carer Gateway are good places to start looking for support. 

The person with the acquired brain injury might find it difficult to continue study and work in the way they did before. If you’re a carer, your work and/or study might be affected, too. Again, plenty of support is available.

It might affect their ability to drive. In Australia, people are required by law to inform the driving licensing authority in their state if they have a permanent illness that may impair their ability to drive safely. They could be asked to have a medical review to see if they are able to retain their driving licence.

If you’re an older person looking after an adult child with an acquired brain injury, you might be worried about the future. Again, Carers Australia is a good place to start.

You might also find it helpful to get in touch with  a support organisation such as the Brain Foundation or Brain Injury Australia. 


Personal and nursing care

People with a severe acquired brain injury might need help from a carer with perform personal tasks such as eating, showering or dressing themselves. There might be times they need nursing care, and some will need long term nursing care.



Brain Injury Australia (what is a brain injury, disorders, Acquired brain injury, frequently asked questions about inflicted brain injury) HealthDirect (Acquired brain injury) Raising Children Network (Acquired brain injury) Better Health channel (Acquired brain injury).

Last updated Novembr 2017

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