Redefining “Recovery” For Brain Injury Victims

In The Nature Of Head Injury, an article published in the book Traumatic Brain Injury and Vocational Rehabilitation, by The Research and Training Center at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Thomas Kay, Ph.D. and Muriel Lezak, Ph.D,, try to demystify some of the common “myths” surrounding brain injury.

In the first of ten myths debunked by the article, Kay and Lezak advise against speaking of “recovery” — in the sense of how one would recover from a broken bone — in relation to brain injury.

When commonplace notion of recovery is applied to head injury, however, considerable harm can be done. Almost never does a patient “recover;” the residual deficits are usually significant and permanent. The continual expectation of recovery can lead clients and families into denial, frustration, disappointment, and even worse, extremely unrealistic expectations and planning.

When the word “recovery” comes into play, it can give families and loved ones of the injured a false sense that things will go back to the way they were before. This completely ignores, and “sweeps under the rug”, the harsh reality that, more often than not, overcoming brain injury is simply learning a new way of life. It can cause tension, as those close to the injured person become frustrated and confused as to why their loved one is not “back to normal yet”.

Moreover, unrealistic expectations about recovery can affect the injured person, who might struggle to accept the new limitations their injury places on them — halting the very important process of learning how to live with these limitations, and maybe even use them to some advantage.

Moreover, the successful rehabilitation of the head injured person cannot take place until they and their family are aware of the new limitations, accept them, and formulate new goals based on changed expectations.

Rehabilitation, not recovery, seems to be a more fitting word to describe the process. It sets more realistic expectations for what our loved one will be able to accomplish, and just how much of their “old self” we can expect to see emerging. It also better prepares us to rebuild a relationship with a brain injured person.

Suffering a brain injury should not be seen as the end of a person’s previous life goals, and as a challenge to “get back to normal” — which is what words like “recovery” can make us think of. Instead, it should be seen as a challenge to look at life in a new way, and set new goals. It should not be seen as the “destruction” of the injured’s previous hopes and dreams, but the chance to create new ones.


This post is a part of the Debunking Ten Myths Of “Recovery” series. If you are interested in reading the rest of the series, you can view the rest of the posts on the Ten Recovery Myths tag.

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