Brain injury - Physical effects of Injury

  • There may be physical changes in a child after a brain injury, ranging from small balance problems to difficulties with standing up or moving their arms. Recovery is different for each child, but most children will improve over time. An occupational therapist, physiotherapist and speech pathologist will all be involved in trying to make your child's physical recovery the best it can be.

    Physical changes after a brain injury

    Each child with a brain injury shows different physical changes depending on the type of injury, the part of the brain that was injured and how serious the injury was. Children almost always show improvement, although some will have long term physical changes. These changes can affect their ability to do everyday activities such as eating, dressing and walking.

    Physical changes after a brain injury can include:

    • changes in muscle tone ('tight' muscles or spasticity), which can make the joints stiff and cause abnormal movements
    • reduced balance and coordination
    • muscle weakness
    • muscle coordination problems that can cause slurred speech, affect the child's ability to eat and their saliva control
    • changes in sensation including touch and pressure, temperature and awareness of where body parts are in space

    Physical recovery

    Physical recovery is different for each child and cannot be predicted. However, there is nearly always improvement over time. Physical recovery usually happens more quickly than cognitive (thinking) recovery. Active rehabilitation and family support help with physical recovery.

    Where can I get help for my child?

    An occupational therapist, physiotherapist and speech pathologist can help work towards the best outcomes for your child's physical recovery. Family participation in therapy sessions is very important so the family can help their child continue therapy activities at home after discharge from hospital.

    What is the treatment?

    During therapy sessions, your child will relearn physical skills such as standing, walking, balance, coordination, controlled speech and using their hands and arms for self care and play.

    Therapists have many ways to help physical recovery and prevent complications. These may include sessions in the therapy gym, casts and splints, hydrotherapy (therapy in water), speaking and communication exercises, handwriting activities and use of equipment such as the tilt table and walking devices. Therapists also help your child relearn everyday activities such as dressing, showering, feeding, returning to school and taking part in sport and fun activities. All of these activities will place different challenges on your child's physical abilities.

    After a brain injury, children get tired easily. Because of this they need regular, short bursts of therapy balanced with rest periods. Some children will need regular therapy for longer, while other children may only need review and monitoring by the therapy team.

    Key points to remember

    • A brain injury may result in physical changes for the injured child.
    • Each child will show different physical changes depending on the type, location and severity of their injury.
    • An occupational therapist, physiotherapist and speech pathologist will all be involved in helping physical recovery.
    • Family participation in therapy sessions is important so that the family can continue activities with the child at home after discharge.

    For more information

    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Paediatric Rehabilitation Service. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed August 2020.

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