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Acquired brain injury (ABI)

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Acquired brain injury (ABI) is damage to the brain that can result from many different causes such as injury, illness or drug and alcohol abuse.
  • After having an ABI, you could experience symptoms including weakness, seizures, memory problems and/or emotional changes.
  • Diagnosis usually involves brain scans and assessment of memory, thinking, and daily tasks.
  • Treatment for ABI depends on its cause and often includes rehabilitation programs.
  • There are many organisations that offer support in Australia to individuals with an ABI and their family and/or caregivers.

What is acquired brain injury (ABI)?

An acquired brain injury (ABI) is the result of damage to your brain that may occur at any time during your life after birth. This damage could occur in a variety of ways and can cause many different problems for the person affected.

ABI is different from an intellectual disability or a mental illness.

What causes ABI?

An ABI may be caused by:

What are the symptoms of ABI?

ABI can affect people in many different ways. Some people have physical effects, including:

  • weakness, shaking, stiffness or poor balance
  • tiredness
  • changes in sleep patterns
  • seizures
  • headaches
  • changes in vision, smell or touch

Some people experience changes in their thinking or learning abilities, including:

  • problems with memory
  • problems with concentration or attention
  • difficulty with planning or organisation
  • confusion
  • difficulty with communication, such as maintaining a conversation

Some people have problems with regulating their behaviour or emotions, including:

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How is ABI diagnosed?

To diagnose ABI, people with an ABI will often have a brain scan. This helps doctors look and assess the extent of any brain damage. Depending on the cause of the ABI, other tests might be done as well.

Medical professionals may carry out testing of the person's memory, thinking and how well they manage everyday tasks. These tests are used to identify what kind of problems they are having, and what support they will need.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor if you are having symptoms of an ABI after an event that puts you at risk of developing brain damage.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is ABI treated?

Treatment will depend on what has caused the ABI. For example, someone who has had a stroke needs treatment specific to their condition. This will be different to treatment for a head injury or infection.

Most people will also need treatment for any specific problems their ABI causes. This is likely to involve a rehabilitation program that focuses on the areas of life in which they are experiencing difficulties.

Rehabilitation takes time. Although the biggest improvements usually come in the first few months after an injury, recovery can continue for years afterwards. Some people may have to live with some of the effects of an ABI permanently.

Caring for a person with an ABI, and living with an ABI

Living with an ABI can be an adjustment to both the person with a brain injury, their family and carers.

Recovery may include specific goals, such as to regain lost skills, and/or to return to work or study. This can be challenging.

If you are living with an ABI, it is important that you look after your health and wellbeing to give your brain the best chance of recovery. If you care for someone with an ABI, there are support organisations that can help.

A National Assistance Card may be useful for both emergencies and everyday situations where a person with an ABI may need assistance or support.

Resources and support

If you feel you need more support, speak with your doctor, as they may be able to help you access assistance.

The Brain Foundation has a fact sheet on ABI and treatment options.

Call Synapse on 1800 673 074 — for information and support for people affected by brain injury and disability. ABI: The Facts is their practical guide to understanding and responding to acquired brain injury. Synapse also has a wide range of information for carers.

Call Brain Injury Australia on 1800 BRAIN1 (1800 272 461) — or download a range of fact sheets about acquired brain injury and how to access support.

Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2023

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