Brain Injury Overview

Brain Injury Overview

Brain injury affects thousands of children and their families every year. If your child has had a brain injury, find out how their brain injury might affect them and where to get help.

Key points to remember about brain injury

  • brain injury is the most common cause of disability in children and young people
  • but how a brain injury affects your child, and the treatment they need, varies - it depends on the type of injury and how serious it is
  • most children who have a mild traumatic brain injury (also called a concussion) generally get better within 2 to 3 weeks (or a little longer)
  • children with more serious brain injuries often have both early and long-term problems
  • common symptoms include problems with concentration and remembering, changes in behaviour and emotion, as well as a variety of physical symptoms such as tiredness or reduced energy levels

What are the different types of brain injury?

An acquired brain injury means a child was not born with their injury. It is the result of an accident or illness after birth. There are 2 types of acquired brain injury - traumatic brain injury and non-traumatic brain injury.

Traumatic brain injury

A traumatic brain injury is the most common type of brain injury and is generally the result of a blow or jolt to the head that is strong enough to injure the brain. The most frequent cause in children and young people include:

  • falls
  • car or bike accidents
  • sports injuries

Non-traumatic brain injury

A non-traumatic brain injury is the result of something that happens inside the body, such as an illness that affects the brain. Examples include:

  • meningitis or another brain infection
  • interrupted blood flow to the brain (such as in a stroke)
  • a growth (tumour) in the brain

What symptoms or difficulties can my child with a brain injury experience?

Your child may experience a variety of symptoms or difficulties following a brain injury - it depends on the type of injury and how serious the injury is. Most children who have a mild traumatic brain injury (also called a concussion) generally get better within 2 to 3 weeks (or a little longer). Children with more serious brain injuries often have both early and long-term problems. Common symptoms include tiredness (or fatigue) and changes in thinking, behaviour and emotion. See Brain injury symptoms and difficulties.

How will my child's brain injury affect them?

How a brain injury affects your child varies - it depends on the type of injury and how serious it is.

How a brain injury affects your child will depend on many factors.

It depends how serious your child's injury is

A general practitioner (GP), ambulance paramedics and/or hospital staff will assess your child after a brain injury and let you know how serious the injury is. Health professionals usually classify traumatic brain injuries as mild, moderate or severe based on things like:

  • how long a child or young person is unconscious
  • the level of loss of consciousness after the injury - this is based on a child's ability to open their eyes and respond with words or movements
  • how long it takes a child to remember things after the accident

Measuring the seriousness of a non-traumatic brain injury is more complicated. The seriousness of the brain injury may change during a child's illness.

It depends on your child's type of injury or part of the brain that was injured

Brain injuries can either:

  • affect only a very specific part of the brain (focal)
  • be more widespread (diffuse)

Each area (or lobe) of the brain does a different job, so injuries can have different effects depending on the area affected. There are also connections between areas of the brain, so an injury to one area may result in problems associated with other parts of the brain.

It depends on your child's age and previous experience

Your child's age and stage of development will also have an impact on how their brain injury affects them. If they have had any previous injuries or illnesses affecting the brain, then a brain injury may also affect them differently.

What treatment will my child with a brain injury receive?

If your child has had a brain injury, the treatment they receive will depend on the type of injury and how serious it is.

A minor brain injury or concussion

If your child has a minor brain injury or concussion, a general practitioner (GP) or hospital emergency department doctor can give advice on how to care for your child and what warning signs to watch for. Sometimes, children need to spend a short time in hospital if they need further assessment or monitoring.

A more serious injury

If your child has a more serious injury, they will usually stay in hospital while they need medical monitoring or treatment (either at your local hospital or at Starship Hospital).

Ongoing help

Your child may also need ongoing help from rehabilitation professionals to return to actively participating in their home, school and community. This can be as an inpatient at a child rehabilitation centre (if your child has had a more serious brain injury), or as an outpatient in the community - either through a child rehabilitation service or through a concussion service or therapy team funded by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC).

Check 'External links and downloads' below for booklets in English, Māori, Samoan and Simplified Chinese.

How long will it take my child to recover from their brain injury?

Most children who have a mild traumatic brain injury (also called a concussion) get better within 2 to 3 weeks, although they can take a little longer.

It is difficult for the doctors or the rehabilitation team to know exactly how long recovery will take if your child has a more serious brain injury, especially at the beginning. Recovery from a brain injury can be a long process so it is important that you as parents look after yourselves too. Health professionals in the hospital, rehabilitation centre and community rehabilitation teams are also there to support parents and families.

The content on this page has been developed and approved by the Paediatric Rehabilitation Team and the Clinical Neuropsychology Team, Consult Liaison, Starship Child Health.

This page last reviewed 23 November 2019.
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