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27 August 2021

Acquired brain injury: What you need to know.

An estimated 700,000 Australians have a brain injury, also known as an acquired brain injury (ABI) that limits their activity and ability to participate in everyday activities.

The term covers a range of different types of brain injuries that occur after birth. Brain injuries are quite common and can happen to anyone of any age.

As brain injury is often a “hidden disability” we wanted to shine a spotlight on this topic and answer some commonly asked questions.


What is a brain injury?

The preferred definition of brain injury used by Brain Injury Australia is “multiple disabilities arising from damage to the brain acquired after birth. It results in deterioration in cognitive, physical, emotional or independent functioning. It can be as a result of accidents, stroke, brain tumours, infection, poisoning, lack of oxygen, degenerative neurological disease etc.”


What causes an acquired brain injury?

An acquired brain injury can be caused by a variety of accidents, conditions and situations including:

  • A blow or bump to the head (also called traumatic brain injury or TBI)
  • Stroke
  • Brain tumour
  • Poisoning
  • Infection and disease
  • Near drowning
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Degenerative neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Oxygen deprivation.

Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries. The most common cause of moderate to severe TBIs is motor vehicle accidents. Other common causes are bicycle accidents, assault and sports injuries.[1]


Is an ABI more common in certain age groups?

Yes, the most common age group is 40-49 years. And one third of people with an ABI that limits their participation or activity are over the age of 65.

ABI is more common in males than females of all ages except over the age of 80.[3]


What happens to the brain in acquired brain injury?

The immediate impact depends on the type of injury but can include:

  • Bruising of brain tissue (contusion)
  • Stretching and tearing of blood vessels
  • Swelling due to chemical changes
  • Damage to major blood vessels
  • Bleeding.[4]

Brain Injury Australia has some great information about how the brain works including the various parts or lobes of the brain and what they do.


How are acquired brain injuries diagnosed or detected?

ABI can occur through sudden onset from trauma or over time from substance abuse, tumours or degenerative brain disease.[5]

Diagnosis is usually made by taking images of the brain through an MRI, CT or other scan, along with an assessment of the cause and symptoms.

Depending on the type of injury, immediate treatment may involve surgery as well as monitoring and controlling pressure inside the brain.[6]


Is acquired brain injury a disability?

Acquired brain injury is a common cause of disability and people with ABI tend to have complex disabilities.

ABI is not the same as intellectual disability and is considered a separate disability under Australia’s health and welfare system.

People with ABI can experience significant recovery and many problems improve over time with treatment and therapies.[7]


How does acquired brain injury affect a person?

The effects of ABI on people present differently in each individual, with impacts which range from mild to profound. The more severe the injury, the more pronounced the long-term effects are likely to be.[8]

Effects might include:

  • Behaviour or personality changes
  • Memory problems
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Fatigue
  • Mobility impairments
  • Poor balance
  • Physical or sensory disabilities
  • Changes to the ability to think and learn
  • Difficulties with speech and communication
  • Depression and mood swings
  • Changed social behaviour and/or loss of social control.

The impact of an ABI can be substantial on the person and their family. It can be incredibly distressing for everyone. Adapting to living with an ABI can mean a whole new way of life. Managing these changes takes time and patience. It’s important to reach out for support along the way (see below for some organisations that can assist).


What are the common long-term treatments for ABI?

Many people with ABI improve over time with the support of specialists, therapists and their family. Rehabilitation and treatment can be arduous and lifelong with the most rapid recovery usually occurring during the first two years.

Treatments and therapies vary from person to person but include:

  • Physiotherapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech pathology
  • Psychology
  • Support to live independently including mobility supports if necessary.


Can someone with an ABI get NDIS funding?

Access to the NDIS is determined on a case by case basis. Check out the NDIS eligibility checklist here. Whether someone with ABI is eligible will largely depend on their ability to meet the NDIS criteria which includes having a permanent disability that is likely to be lifelong.

For people who meet the criteria, the NDIS may be able to fund:

  • Skill building activities to become more independent
  • Therapy supports
  • Assistive technology such as mobility supports
  • Supports to participate in work and the community.

Check out ABI: How the NDIS can help for details.


Where can you get help or information?

A not-for-profit organisation that provides a range of support services, information and targeted research activities. Download their free ebook on understanding and responding to ABI.

Brain Injury Australia
A central place for information and referral gateway for Australians living with brain injury. Check out their resource library for helpful fact sheets and publications.

Brain Foundation
Raises funds for research into brain diseases and disorders. Has excellent links for organisations in each state on their ABI page.


Do you need more support?

Here at Leap in!, we put people before profit and that means our Members come first.

Let us know if you need help understanding your NDIS plan and its budgets, if want to connect with local providers who have the the supports you need or if you could use some assistance getting ready for your Plan Review.

It doesn’t matter what you need, let us know!  Call 1300 05 78 78, email crew@leapin.com.au or chat with us online.


Further reading

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI): How the NDIS can help.

What therapeutic supports will the NDIS fund?

Speech and language therapy: What will the NDIS fund?


[1] Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), Traumatic Brain Injury – support for injured people and their carers, 14 November 2014.

[2] Brain Injury Australia https://www.braininjuryaustralia.org.au/, accessed 11 August 2021.

[3] Better Health Channel Victoria, Acquired Brain Injury, accessed 11 August 2021.

[4] Brain Foundation, Acquired Brain Injury, accessed 11 August 2021.

[5] Better Health Channel Victoria, Acquired Brain Injury, accessed 11 August 2021.

[6] Brain Foundation, Acquired Brain Injury, accessed 11 August 2021.

[7] Queensland Government, Queensland Health, What is acquired brain injury, 20 April 2021.

[8] Headway, Effects of brain injury, accessed 11 August 2021.