Building a new life after head injury

World Head Injury Awareness Day commemorated on 20 March 

Thursday, March 18 2021

Head injuries can happen to anyone, changing lives unbelievably quickly and profoundly. Head injuries vary widely in their severity and in their effects on individual and family functioning. A broad spectrum of support is often needed to help the person and their family adjust to a new way of life and optimise recovery as far as possible. 

“The brain is a wonderous and delicate organ that controls and coordinates our functioning, and an injury to the brain can impact not only the person’s physical functioning but their understanding, actions, emotions and ability to express themselves,” says Professor Andre Mochan, a neurologist who practises at Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital, ahead of World Head Injury Awareness Day on Saturday, 20 March. 

Car accidents, interpersonal violence, falls and workplace injuries are among the most common causes of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in South Africa. TBI may be as simple as a concussion with brief loss of consciousness or as extensive as a massive blow to the head leading to coma and potentially lifelong neurological consequences and disability. 

“Depending on the degree and extent of injury, and which part of the brain is affected, the physical, cognitive, emotional and psychosocial effects of a head injury can vary considerably and are not always apparent immediately,” adds Peta-Lyn Foot, an occupational therapist at Akeso Randburg – Crescent Clinic.

Significant brain injuries unfortunately almost always impact daily life. Brain injury survivors may be left with mobility difficulties like weakness or inability to move parts of the body, there may be cognitive impairment, speech and concentration problems, as well as a range of behavioural and emotional disturbances, often in combination.

Immediate care after a head trauma is usually handled in an emergency department and is typically managed by a neurosurgeon. 

According to Dr Anchen Laubscher, group medical director of Netcare, there are a number of factors that are associated with better outcomes. “There is a correlation between quicker emergency medical services response to patients with critical brain injuries and better outcomes, as this results in immediate and appropriate emergency pre-hospital care and rapid transport to the closest most appropriate facility equipped to manage severe head trauma. 

“In trauma care, time is always of the essence and therefore response times are an important key performance indicator for ambulance services. Netcare 911’s median time from answering all calls to arriving at the patient was 16.4 minutes in the past year,” she says. 

Rehabilitation and longer-term support is most effective when it involves input from a multi-disciplinary team, which includes a rehabilitation doctor, neurologist, psychologist, physiotherapist, speech and occupational therapists, social worker, and experienced nursing staff.

“The brain attempts to heal itself, and with the help of rehabilitation there usually is improvement over time. At Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital, we do our best to help each patient to extend their own potential and quality of life as far as possible while they are under our care and beyond. However, it is a lifelong pursuit for the individual to continue their progress towards rebuilding their life,” Prof Mochan says. 

“A patient’s successful return to their home after rehabilitation is an internationally recognised measure of the success of a physical rehabilitation programme. In the last year, 91.1% of patients admitted to Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital with a head injury were discharged to their home,” Dr Laubscher adds.

Foot adds that head injuries can sometimes cause people to become more irritable or aggressive, and their impulse control may be diminished. “At Akeso mental health facilities, our focus when helping people with neurological injuries is to improve their mood and interpersonal functioning. We also assist them to learn skills that help them cope to their fullest potential in their particular circumstances,” Foot says. 

“We work with the individual to create structure and routine and, in many cases, we help the person to develop their social skills and compensatory techniques for managing the cognitive challenges of living with a brain injury.

“People who have sustained severe head injuries usually will not be able to work or live independently and require assistance with the tasks in their daily lives. People with mild head injuries, however, can often develop the skills they need to function independently, albeit at a basic level. Most important is to put in place daily action plans. Repetitive tasks help to create familiarity and build confidence,” she says. 

Support is vitally important not only for the individual but also for their family, as the situation can be emotionally very taxing for all concerned. Apart from the mental healthcare services offered by Akeso, non-profit organisations like Headway in Gauteng offer support to survivors and their families.  

“A head injury may change the person’s personality considerably, which can be very difficult for their loved ones to come to terms with. The radical change in relationship dynamics when a person suddenly becomes dependent for their daily needs is often extremely stressful. At Akeso, we therefore also involve families to ensure the brain injury survivor’s social support structure is informed and better equipped to navigate the adjustment,” Foot says.

Prof Mochan and Foot recommend the following precautions to help prevent head injuries:

  • Always wear a seatbelt when travelling in a vehicle
  • Buckle up children, use baby seats
  • Drive carefully
  • Never drink and drive
  • Have your eyes tested regularly
  • Consult a doctor if you do not feel well, especially if you feel dizzy or unsteady 
  •  Avoid substance abuse
  • Wear a helmet when cycling
  • Remove possible trip hazards in your home and environment 

Foot appealed to the public to be constantly alert to the dangers of head injury. 

“In the blink of an eye, anyone can sustain a head injury. The risk is not confined to people who are ‘reckless’ or have dangerous lifestyles, anyone can be hit by a car, be involved in an accident or injured with life-changing consequences.”

Ends

About the Akeso Group
Akeso is a group of private in-patient mental health facilities, and is part of the Netcare Group. Akeso provides individual, integrated and family-oriented treatment in specialised in-patient treatment facilities, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance use conditions. Please visit www.akeso.co.za, or email info@akeso.co.za for further information. In the event of a psychological crisis, please call 0861 435 787 for assistance.

Looking for a medical appointment? Netcare appointmed™ will make appointments with specialists practising at Netcare hospitals, GPs and dentists at Medicross medical and dental centres, and specialists at Akeso mental health facilities for YOU. Simply phone Netcare appointmed™  on 0860 555 565, Mondays to Fridays between 08:00 and 17:00, or request an appointment online at www.netcare.co.za/Request-a-medical-appointment.

For more information on this media release, contact MNA at the contact details listed below.

Issued by:            MNA on behalf of Akeso Randburg – Crescent Clinic and Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital
Contact:    Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster and Clementine Forsthofer
Telephone:    (011) 469 3016
Email:    connect@mnapr.co.za, martina@mnapr.co.za, meggan@mnapr.co.za or estene@mnapr.co.za or clemmy@mnapr.co.za