Brain injury study to focus on Waikato

9 February 2010

It’s called the invisible injury, but traumatic brain injury (TBI) is very common and can happen to anyone at any time – in a car crash or while playing sports, as well as through assaults and falls.

Up to 95% of all TBIs are mild or moderate (concussion), affecting around 24,000 New Zealanders each year, but there’s very little information available on the social and healthcare implications of TBI for sufferers and their families.

And there’s no data on why Maori and Pacific people have a higher rate of TBI at a significantly younger age and with more severe outcomes than the rest of the population.

A new Waikato-wide survey of head injuries now aims to fill that gap by collecting information on the how and why brain injuries occur, and what the best treatment options are.

The study, funded by the Health Research Council, is being conducted by researchers at the University of Waikato and AUT, aims to record and assess every person who has suffered a brain injury in the Hamilton and Waikato district in the 12 months beginning from March this year.

The Waikato region was chosen because its population is most representative of New Zealand as a whole. The area includes Franklin County, Huntly, Ngaruawahia, Raglan and Hamilton.

“We want to include every single person with a new head injury,” says researcher Dr Nicola Starkey of the University of Waikato’s Department of Psychology. “We’ll be checking Waikato Hospital every day, going around all the GPs every week, and checking with schools, sports clubs and St John’s Ambulance.”

Led by Professor Valery Feigin of the National Research Centre for Stroke, Applied Neurosciences and Neurorehabilitation at AUT, the study will involve interviewing participants and their families for up to a year after the injury, asking about treatment people received and how easy or difficult it was to get help and information. It will also look at the social and treatment costs.

“We don’t know very much about how people recover from the mild concussion type injuries, and this is the group that probably don’t get the support they need,” says Dr Starkey. “We want to know how an injury to the brain affects daily behaviour such as shopping, caring for a family, maintaining relationships and being able to work. The information we collect will help us plan better for the future, and make sure we’ve got the right rehabilitative and support structures in place.”

Dr Starkey says she is expecting around 1,000 participants over the 12-month period. “Figures show the total incidence of TBI is 600 per 100,000 people, but that only covers cases admitted to hospital, so it’s probably an underestimate. The people we want are the ones who don’t go to hospital. Even mild concussion can have long-lasting effects.”

She says typical signs of mild TBI are seeing stars, loss of consciousness and not remembering what happened. Without the right treatment, she says, mild TBI can lead to fatigue, poor memory, long-lasting headaches, irritability and inability to concentrate.

The researchers are looking for people who have suffered a brain injury from 1st March this year to participate in the study; anyone who wishes to refer themselves or a family member can find out more by emailing [email protected], calling the study manager on 07 8384257, or by looking at the study website