Understanding Brain Injuries And Domestic Violence

Brain injuries can arise from various sources, including combat, sports, and interpersonal relationships.

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, and through annual awareness campaigns and media coverage, many of us are familiar with the heightened risks certain groups face for brain injuries, such as military personnel in combat zones and athletes in contact sports.

However, there's another demographic for whom brain injuries are all too common, with potentially severe and sometimes fatal consequences: victims of intimate partner violence.

Here are three key points to understand about brain injuries and intimate partner violence:

1. Brain injury is prevalent among individuals subjected to domestic partners' violence.

Having dedicated years to studying the consequences of trauma, particularly intimate partner abuse, much of my research has focused on the psychological impacts of harm. Like many trauma researchers, my work has delved into the psychological causes of injury. For instance, research on betrayal trauma theory explores how and why intimacy in the victim-perpetrator relationship predicts various post-traumatic harms, including physical and psychological health effects.

In recent years, many trauma researchers my team included have highlighted the impact of physical injuries to the head and neck, which can have potentially serious implications for brain health. Over 40 research studies now indicate that mild brain injuries are common among individuals victimized by intimate partners, especially women. For instance, our research found that one in two women who were victims in domestic violence cases reported testing positive for a mild traumatic brain injury at some point in their lives. Mild traumatic brain injuries typically refer to incidents where a blow to the head resulted in a change in consciousness or loss of consciousness lasting less than 30 minutes.

The brain can also sustain damage when deprived of oxygen, sometimes referred to as anoxic brain injuries, such as when someone is strangled. "Choking is a common and dangerous form of domestic violence that can be deadly and must be taken seriously."

2. Several types of issues are common after brain injuries.

Identifying brain injuries among individuals victimized by intimate partners is crucial for addressing post-traumatic symptoms. Brain injuries can contribute to persistent issues, some of which overlap with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety symptoms commonly experienced after trauma.

Among the most common issues reported were headaches, difficulty remembering things, trouble finding the right words, and attention challenges. Attention difficulties included problems with distraction and concentration.

Beyond psychological challenges, brain injuries are associated with various types of problems. Brain injuries may cause problems with balance, feeling dizzy, seeing clearly, and feeling tired. Emotional changes can include difficulty regulating emotions and feelings of distress or irritability. Brain injuries are also linked to changes in sleep patterns, such as excessive sleepiness or sleeping more or less than usual.

Most people fully recover from these types of issues after a single, mild brain injury. Consider, for instance, an incident of a sports-related concussion where the individual is removed from the game, allowing the brain time to heal. In many such cases, the brain recovers without long-term consequences. Unfortunately, for many enduring intimate partner abuse, brain injuries can be more frequent and/or severe, making it more challenging for the brain to heal.

3. Support is available for individuals with brain injuries and their loved ones.

There are numerous resources available for individuals with brain injuries and their loved ones. For instance, educational materials can help people learn about the range of possible physical, emotional, and psychological effects of brain injury and how to support someone with an injury. Additionally, support groups, workshops, and clinics can help people learn new ways to cope with changes caused by brain injuries. The National Association of State Head Injury Administrators provides links to state resources across the US. Recognizing the link between brain injury and domestic violence, organizations are also beginning to create resources for survivors of intimate partner abuse and their loved ones. The Ohio Domestic Violence Network created helpful educational materials for survivors and their families.

Conclusion: From Awareness to Action

In March, you can act on your understanding of brain injury and domestic violence. For example, you could research what brain injury services are available locally so that you're prepared to help loved ones connect with resources and medical care.

Of course, the most effective way to prevent brain injuries in domestic partner violence is to prevent that abuse from happening in the first place. We all have a stake in ending intimate violence, regardless of our direct experiences, as I explore in Every Two Minutes: Our Common Purpose Ending Violence Against Women. Perhaps you're an educator who witnesses the consequences of brain injuries and violence in your classrooms. Or a business owner who believes that your employees should thrive. Maybe you're a healthcare provider who sees the impacts of head injuries in your practice or a loved one of a survivor. Each of us can play a role in ending intimate partner violence.

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