Brain injuries can be caused by many factors including motor vehicle accidents, falls, sports injuries, physical abuse, and alcohol related incidents. Generally, the public doesn’t realize how widespread brain injuries are or the extensive and potentially devastating effects they can have on physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural levels. A traumatic blow to the head can lead to the disruption of brain functioning, resulting in confusion, forgetfulness, headaches with associated symptoms, and behavioural concerns, as well as a range of emotional issues including depression. Although some head injuries may not immediately appear to be serious, many have long-lasting and very detrimental effects.

Complex challenges for victims and caregivers alike

According to Brain Injury Canada, 160,000 Canadians suffer a brain injury annually. The World Health Organization estimates 10 million people per year are affected by a traumatic brain injury (TBI), however this number is likely underestimated due to common misconceptions as to what constitutes a brain injury. In Canada, income lost (indirect costs) from disabilities related to brain injuries are predicted to rise from $7.3 to $8.2 billion between 2011 and 2031, which exceeds the indirect cost of the sum of six other neurological conditions, including epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, combined.

The stress on caregivers can be huge. As one caregiver noted, “Brain injury doesn’t just change the life of the individual. It changes the lives of everyone around them.” When brain injury is accompanied by cognitive impairment and/or behavioural issues, it can cause caregivers (most often the family members of those afflicted) potentially overwhelming distress. These indirect and human costs are added to financial costs that often include out-of-pocket expenses for care and medication. Compounding this situation is the lack of regulatory blood/body fluid tests for victims of brain injury, which are key to accurate diagnoses and effective treatment. The Canadian Traumatic Brain Injury Research Consortium is currently addressing this difficult situation.

Navigating the health care system can be difficult and is made even more challenging by the lack of uniformity of care. Some treatment centres, for example, are designed to offer acute care and may not accept referrals for patients who need ongoing care. To further complicate things, the needs of patients and their families are often complex and multifaceted, as several factors – namely, the interaction between genes, the environment, and lifestyle – play a role when it comes to chronic conditions. Treatment often includes modifiable personal lifestyle factors such as sleep/relaxation, exercise/movement, nutrition, stress/self-management, and social relationships.

Making progress to offer better care

Affecting all age groups and areas of the country, the epidemic of traumatic brain injuries requires a proactive and comprehensive approach, including a robust applied research agenda. The federal government is currently polling Canadians about its proposed inclusive Disabilities Act. In tandem, Employment and Social Development Canada has crafted a Social Development Partnership Program involving community-based disability groups. This program is informed by Australia’s existing inclusive National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The good news is that significant progress is being made both in terms of bio-medical research and clinical care for patients with brain injuries. But much more needs to be done, from public education to active government leadership. The tens of thousands of brain injury patients and their families and caregivers deserve no less.