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Understanding Brain Injury as a Chronic Disease

Brain Injury Blog by Janet M. Cromer, RN, MA, LMHC

August 26, 2011

Understanding Brain Injury as a Chronic Disease

Many brain injury survivors live many years after the injury. Some continue to make progress and do well, while others develop more health problems. There is a new way of thinking about brain injury that has implications for all survivors and their caregivers. The Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) is striving to have brain injury reclassified as a chronic disease. 

What is a chronic disease?

The chronic disease classification means that brain injury affects every system in the body, can cause other health problems, and can make existing problems worse. I’ve been interested in this topic for years because brain injury certainly was connected with, or caused, other problems for my husband Alan after he sustained a severe anoxic brain injury. 

Currently, brain injury is considered by most insurers and even some medical professionals to be an event that happens once and has time-limited consequences. Insurers often pay for the acute care and some rehabilitation, but then consider their responsibility met. Many professionals don’t understand the special needs of people who’ve had a brain injury for years after the injury. That’s why we need a better model that treats brain injury as a chronic disease that can last a lifetime. 

What are some common chronic diseases? They include heart failure, diabetes, and chronic kidney failure. We all know that patients with those diseases require careful monitoring, education to stay healthy, and medical treatment when the disease gets worse. Most chronic diseases cannot be cured, but the symptoms can be controlled with good treatment. Spotting problems early can reduce complications and hospitalization. 

In a 2009 position paper, Conceptualizing Brain Injury as a Chronic Disease, the BIAA recommended that people who suffer a brain injury should receive the same level of long-term monitoring, health education, and treatment as people who have the traditional chronic diseases. Doctors should manage their care long-term, and insurers should pay for treatment equal to that of other chronic diseases. 

What health problems are connected to brain injury?

The authors of the position paper reviewed many studies and found that the following problems are related to brain injury. Before you get too worried, please remember that every individual is unique, and there is no certainty that you’ll develop these problems.

Other researchers report higher rates of movement disorders. Alan developed Parkinson’s disease, which caused problems with coordination, swallowing, and walking. Fortunately, medications and physical therapy helped a lot.

What can I do about these risks?

There are plenty of steps survivors and their caregivers can take.

 Next week I’ll write about aging with brain injury, and offer strategies for family caregivers.