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Brain injury

The psychiatrist fighting for domestic violence victims

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Australia’s New South Wales government has promised to improve brain injury testing for domestic abuse victims after a psychiatrist drew attention to inconsistent care for vulnerable women. Psychiatrist Karen Williams urged the government to adopt a concussion protocol for family and domestic violence victims after doing her own research and being shocked at what she found.

It started when Williams noticed the disparity in how her patients were diagnosed and treated.Williams specialises in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), often with military, police, emergency personnel and other first responders.

But she also treats the general population, the vast majority of whom are women with histories of child and domestic abuse.

“I was getting two populations,” she tells NR Times. “The military patients, who are clearly identified as having PTSD, and the female population, who are mostly identified as having depression, anxiety and personality disorders, but had incredibly high rates of abuse in their histories.But Williams saw that whilst both groups had similar symptoms, and similar levels of trauma, they had very different treatment options.

“There’s a lot more funding put into supporting traumatised soldiers and first responders than there is for women who have experienced trauma within their home.

“In Australia, we don’t have much at all for women and children victims of abuse.”

This was a particular concern because of the amount of times Williams had heard about multiple head injuries and concussion among women who were victims of domestic abuse, which is similar to boxers and those player high contact sports.

“Women who’ve been unconscious several times or strangled have symptoms such as memory deficits, insomnia, migraine and mood swings, which all could be put down to PTSD and depression, but also brain injuries.”

But if Williams wanted to find out if a patient had a history of brain injuries, she would have to refer them for neuropsychiatric testing, which costs up to AUS$1000.

“This is completely unaffordable for many abuse victims so it just doesn’t happen, so we don’t investigate women who’ve had brain injuries.

“One brain injury unit told me they would consider taking on a patient if they could provide evidence that an assault happened – such as hospital records.

“This completely fails to take into account that the vast majority of domestic violence survivors will not report any assault to anyone and will not have so-called evidence.”

Then, Williams was speaking to a colleague whose son had had a head injury in a sporting field.

While they were together, a nurse rang to follow up the treatment he’d received in the emergency department.

“The nurse asked how her son’s personality and memory was, and gave a fantastic run-down of the symptoms that can happen after a concussion,” Williams says.

Williams was shocked – she’d never heard of someone ringing up women after a head injury in a domestic violence case.

She rang the local emergency department and asked about their protocol following a head injury obtained during sport.

She was given a detailed outline of the observations they take, their plan over the weeks following the patient’s injury and the advice they give the patient.

Williams called several emergency departments in other Australian states, and whilst all had a protocol for sports players following a concussion, none said they had a protocol for women who had been the victim of domestic abuse.

“There wasn’t one place that said they had a particular protocol.

“If they knew the woman had had a head injury they’d give them the basic head injury protocol, but nothing specific that took into account the very individual needs that a woman with a head injury in a domestic situation might have,” she says.

Williams says research indicates health care professionals correctly identify family violence victims about one per cent of the time.

“In sporting players’ protocol, there’s a recognition that says that your patient may not know what they’ve experienced in the past was a head injury, so the advice is to be really explicit. They’re given a list of questions to break it down with that player to make sure they understand what could be a head injury.

“There is opportunity for scanning, and neuropsychological testing if there is evidence of persistent symptoms.”

Williams says doctors should be going through the history of women, too, to see if they’ve lost consciousness in the past.

“There are a variety of mechanisms in which a woman experiences brain injuries in a domestic situation, many more than sporting probably, and the more head injuries a woman has, the greater her chance of long-term problems,” Williams says.

This includes a higher risk dementia, PTSD, migraines, learning problems and memory problems.

“But women aren’t told this, so many don’t know that they’re at risk of these things.”

Williams says there is a ’hidden epidemic’ of women in the community with brain injuries no one knows about, who could have been diagnosed with mental health issues instead.

In 2018, Brain Injury Australia released its findings after looking at the prevalence of brain injury in victims of domestic violence.

It found that 40 per cent of victims who attended hospitals in Victoria, Australia, for domestic violence had a brain injury and the majority were women.

But there’s no specific treatment for these women, Williams says, and many won’t even know they have a brain injury.

“Abused women are a very neglected population, and when you think about the money being spent on sports, and sports players, there’s no reason we can’t look after woman as well,” Williams says.

But despite these findings, Williams says it didn’t lead to any change.

“When I found all this out, I was angry and upset,” Williams says.

She arranged to meet New South Wales’s Labour MP Anna Watson in August, and when Williams told her what she’d found, she says Watson was ‘mortified’.

“She immediately got on the phone with the office of the minister for the prevention of domestic violence, and requested a meeting as soon as possible.

In the Zoom meeting a month later, Williams went over what she had found with Mark Speakman, Attorney General and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, and outlined the obstacles facing women.

But he made no promises, and Williams said she felt he didn’t understand the urgency or gravity of the situation.

Watson then went to the media, and the story was reported on. Within a week, the government produced a statement promising to investigate the issue.

“We’ll all be watching and holding them accountable,” Williams says.

“I will be trying to follow up, I won’t let it go.”

Williams is disheartened that it took media coverage to get the government to respond, but says she’s learnt a valuable lesson.

“Part of the reason I’ve spoken to the media and been vocal about it, is my experience is that when we do things quietly and ask for things politely, the government says there’s no money, despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But when the voting population starts getting angry and asking what’s going on, that’s when we see an answer.

“It’s been a sad realisation for me to recognise that people don’t respond to do the right thing, they respond to winning the vote, so I will keep being as loud as possible in the media.”

Leaving brain injuries undiagnosed has significant consequences, Williams says.

“You’ve got women feeling like they’re a bit crazy, women wondering, ‘Why don’t I remember things, why have I got headaches all the time, why can’t I sleep?’

“It makes women feel worse, like something is wrong with them rather than identifying the underlying cause that we’re completely missing.

“If women are unable to work due to the physical and psychological side effects of a recurrent head injury, they need to be able to apply for NDIS funding (National Disability Insurance Agency). f they don’t know they have a brain injury they will be left to flounder – which is what is happening now.

“The vast majority of doctors don’t know about this. The medical system failing these women.”

There will be a lot to work out as support becomes available, Williams says, as some women could fear that having brain injury diagnosis could interfere with them getting custody of their children.

But, ultimately, change will benefit these women.

“All women deserve to know the truth about what’s happening to them,” she says.

“In some cases, their brain injury will be the final straw. They might think an act of violence isn’t a big deal, but if a doctor says, ‘Look how many times this has happened to you, you could end up long term brain damage’, that might be the final push that makes her take steps to leave. There’s no excuses to justify why these conversations aren’t had.”

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Brain injury

New cycle helmet test discovers true level of protection for cyclists

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The effectiveness of bike helmets in protecting against brain injuries caused by collisions at speed has been tested for the first time. 

New helmet technologies have emerged in recent years to mitigate the instances and severity of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in collisions from cycling, but the way this is traditionally tested leaves room for doubt in their findings. 

The majority of real-world cycling-based TBIs are caused by rotational forces on the brain, which are generated by the head hitting the ground at an oblique angle, mostly seen when cyclists fall or collide while moving. 

However, current methods test whether heads are protected from falls at right-angles, which happen mostly when bikes are stationary, and do not account for the rotational forces at play when cyclists fall to the ground at speed.

Now, a new Imperial College London paper has demonstrated a new simulation-enabled helmet testing technique that tests how well helmets protect heads from rotational forces.

Testing 27 different helmets in a purpose-built rig at Research Institutes of Sweden, the project found that newer technologies reduced whole-brain strain compared with older helmets. 

However, they also found that the effectiveness of newer helmets depended on their technology and location of impact – some helmets which were designed specifically to reduce rotational forces didn’t appear to accomplish their aims.

Its findings could be significant in ensuring future safety innovations in cycling helmets, the research team said. 

“The amount of people cycling since the COVID-19 pandemic began has doubled on weekdays and trebled on weekends in parts of the UK,” says lead author Fady Abayazid, of Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering.

“To keep themselves safe, it’s important cyclists know the best way to protect their heads should they have a fall or collision.

“Cyclists falling from motion will most often hit the ground at a non-right-angle. These angles produce rotational forces that subject the brain to twisting and shearing forces – factors contributing to severe TBIs, which can be life-altering. 

“However, current testing standards for bike helmets don’t account for this issue, so we designed a new analysis method to address this gap by combining experimental oblique impacts with a highly detailed computational model of the human brain.”

Senior author Dr Mazdak Ghajari, also of Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering, adds: “With cycling’s popularity soaring, we are seeing more requests from the public and cycling communities for a thorough review of new helmet technologies to inform their purchases. 

“However, this is hard to do without testing that accounts for rotational forces.

“Our research could help to address this gap, inform customers, improve safety, and reduce the frequency and severity of TBIs from cycling.”

The authors are now looking into testing standards for motorbike and industrial helmets and the Dyson School of Design Engineering has also just built its own rig to carry out future experimental helmet impact tests.

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Brain injury

Calvert Reconnections strengthens senior team ahead of opening

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A groundbreaking neurorehabilitation centre is helping to plan for its future even before its opening through strengthening its management team. 

Calvert Reconnections is set to open on June 21 and is set to deliver new possibilities in brain injury rehabilitation through its UK-first residential programme which combines traditional clinical therapies with physical outdoor activities. 

The centre, based on the outskirts of Keswick in the Lake District, is now making new additions to its senior team as is prepares for its long-awaited opening, which has previously been delayed due to COVID-19. 

Claire Appleton has become head of service at Calvert Reconnections with Lorna Mulholland appointed as registered manager. 

Claire, an occupational therapist, has 23 years’ experience working in the NHS and has held various community roles including in acquired brain injury, long-term neurological conditions, neurological splinting and stroke rehab.  

Five years ago, Claire moved into a management post in the NHS leading the Eden Community Rehab Team, developing strategic specialist leadership and management skills, and gaining valuable experience delivering high quality health services.

Lorna has 12 years’ specialist experience within the social care sector, principally in acquired brain injury, learning disabilities, mental health and autism. 

She has an extensive knowledge base in delivering care within a residential and supported living setting with experience in complex challenging behaviour.

Sean Day, centre director at Calvert Reconnections, says: “As part of our senior management team, Claire and Lorna have a key role to play in the delivery of our service.  

“Everyone at Calvert Reconnections take great pride in what we do and the difference we can make to people’s lives.”

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Brain injury

UFC adopts concussion protocols for MMA fighters

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An official concussion protocol has been created for mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters competing in the UFC, in a first for the sport which builds further on global efforts to safeguard sportspeople from the effects of head injury. 

The UFC Performance Institute has published its protocol, aimed at both fighters and coaches, as part of a 484-page study based on data collected between 2017 and 2019.  

Hailed as the most comprehensive MMA study ever undertaken, it details the UFC’s five-step rules around returning to the sport following concussion or TBI. 

“The goal is we really want to support the ongoing development and performance behaviours and activities in the MMA gyms in the combat community globally,” says Duncan French, the UFC’s vice president of performance. 

“We are slowly aggregating our own insights and our information here in the Performance Institute, and we want to share that. We don’t want the PI to become an ivory tower where the information is only retained for a discrete 600 roster of fighters.”

Further investigation into any different needs for female fighters will be undertaken, the vice president adds. 

“Now, we need to do more work to understand how we can potentially support the ladies if they do have a concussion,” says Duncan. 

“Because that method, that approach to return to play following a concussion in females, might need to be different.”

In the new protocol, the details its return-to-sport approach as being similar to that of the NFL, beginning with up to two days of rest, followed by two stages of no-contact workouts. 

The UFC wants fighters to use its concussion assessment tool, the SCAT5, to monitor progress, and as they improve, fighters can go from no-contact workouts to moderate contact, although still with minimal risk of head contact. 

The final stage includes a return to sparring, and the UFC PI recommends starting with one session each week with no more than three rounds of five minutes, gradually adding more over a period of four weeks until they reach two full sparring sessions of five rounds per session. 

Returning to full contact will need medical clearance, the protocol states.

“For brain injuries like concussion, even if you are feeling symptom-free, a fighter should go through all stages of a return-to-sport protocol to ensure a full brain recovery,” the report says. 

“Further, resuming activity too quickly, especially in contact sports like MMA, not only increases the risk of subsequent musculoskeletal injuries and longer recovery times but also further concussions (e.g. second-impact syndrome) which can lead to chronic neurological conditions, permanent disability and death.”

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