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Occupational Therapy and Brain Injury: How It Benefits Your Independence

occupational therapist helping smiling senior woman with brain injury finish a jigsaw puzzle

Occupational therapists are one of the most important specialists you can work with during brain injury rehabilitation.

You’re about to learn the major benefits of participating in occupational therapy for brain injury recovery. Let’s get started!   

Occupational Therapy and Brain Injury

The goal of occupational therapy is to help the patient regain functional independent living skills.

While physical therapists mainly focus on teaching a person how to rebuild their physical strength after an injury, occupational therapists take a more holistic approach. They look at what skills the patient needs to live independently and invent creative ways to help the person accomplish that goal.

This makes occupational therapy a practical and effective treatment for brain injury. During an OT session, you will practice many important activities that will directly improve your independence.

Here are some areas that an occupational therapist can help you with:

  • Self-care
  • Home management
  • Recreation
  • Social skills
  • Cognitive functioning
  • Community re-entry skills (shopping, returning to work or school, etc.)

To help you regain these skills, an occupational therapist will teach you both restorative and compensatory strategies.

Restorative vs Compensatory Tactics

Restorative techniques help you relearn how to perform an activity the way you did before your brain injury.

Compensatory tactics, on the other hand, help you find a new way of doing something if it’s not yet possible for you to do it the same way you were doing it before.

A good example of a compensatory tactic is a crutch. Crutches help you move around when your legs cannot support your weight. But eventually, you will need to remove the crutches and begin walking without them. Otherwise, if you rely for too long on the crutch, you might lose the strength and coordination to walk on your own.

This is why occupational therapists prefer to teach their patients restorative techniques when possible. Restorative techniques typically require more work/muscular effort from the individual, with less reliance on a device. However, there are plenty of scenarios where compensatory techniques need to be used, and they can still advance a person towards independence.

Benefits of Occupational Therapy for Brain Injury

Occupational therapy can offer many practical benefits to brain injury patients that other therapies cannot.

Some occupational therapists prefer to work in real-life settings with their patients such as the person’s home, bank, mall or any other place where the person needs to practice skills to regain competence and become independent. When this is not possible, occupational therapists will use clinical settings to create simulated environments (i.e. using a kitchen or laundry room in a clinic to practice these home management skills).

Below are some skills that occupational therapists most commonly address.      

1. Coping Skills

woman staying calm at work, using the coping skills she learned in occupational therapy after brain injury

Some of the most difficult secondary effects of brain injury to overcome are the emotional and behavioral problems that often accompany them.

These issues make it hard for TBI survivors to handle frustration and disappointment in a healthy manner, which unfortunately can negatively impact their relationships and even prevent them from finding and keeping a job.

The good news is occupational therapy addresses these problems and teaches brain injury patients effective coping methods. In fact, some occupational therapists are trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy or behavior management strategies, and can help the person and their family members learn how to handle emotional outbursts before they escalate.

This training is crucial for enabling TBI patients to successfully reintegrate back into their community after injury.

2. Independent Living Skills

Another area that occupational therapists address is independent living skills.

There are two main categories of independent living skills that OTs will focus on: basic activities of daily living (typically just referred to as ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs).

According to the Occupational Therapy Practice Framework, the basic ADLs encompass the essential activities that are oriented towards taking care of one’s own body/well-being. These include:

  • Eating
  • Grooming/Hygiene
  • Bathing
  • Dressing
  • Toileting
  • Functional Mobility (getting from place to place while performing ADL)
  • Sexual activity

The instrumental ADLs involve higher cognitive processes. They allow a person to be completely independent. Some examples of IADLs are:

  • Finances
  • Housekeeping
  • Meal prep
  • Medication management

Occupational therapists help the person practice these skills directly and hopefully regain them. While working on these skills, the therapist will brainstorm ways to adapt them to the person’s ability, or even train family members or caregivers to assist the patient with these tasks if necessary.

3. Memory Skills

man holding notebook and pen, smiling because he remembered something

Memory is another ability that is severely impacted by traumatic brain injury. But without the ability to remember important information, such as when to take medication or how long to leave the stove on, it’s difficult for the person to safely live on their own.   

To address this problem, occupational therapists teach patients different exercises that improve short-term memory or provide compensatory memory strategies.

For example, practitioners might have the person look at a picture for a few seconds and then draw what they remember. The more the person exercises their memory, the better their recall skills become.

Therapists will also show patients compensatory tactics such as daily planners, checklists, and other tricks that help people remember. While these techniques won’t help the person regain their memory, it will help them function more efficiently until they can improve their skills.

4. Cognitive Skills

Besides memory, occupational therapists can also help you improve several other cognitive skills.

By using cognitive rehabilitation exercises, patients can boost skills such as:

  • Attention
  • Visual perception
  • Problem-solving
  • Executive function

These skills are crucial for helping the person live independently, which is why a significant part of occupational therapy is devoted to improving them.

Most occupational therapists are familiar with exercises that address these issues. They can also work with your neuropsychologist to create a program that best fits your needs.

5. Social Skills

woman smiling with her coworkers, raising glasses to make a toast, using social skills she learned from occupational therapy after brain injury

Finally, occupational therapists can teach TBI patients important social skills that might have been lost after their injury, such as:

  • How to begin and end a conversation
  • How to react to good or bad news
  • Letting the other person finish their sentences
  • Non-verbal communication

Therapy either takes place in a group setting or one-on-one. Patients are taught how to react to certain social situations and are given the opportunity to practice interactions in a safe environment.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists are experts at identifying what skills a patient needs to relearn to live independently. They are out-of-the-box thinkers who can come up with creative ways to help the patient regain abilities and improve their quality of life.

Therefore, if you want to reach your maximum level of independence after brain injury, make sure you include occupational therapy into your TBI recovery plan.


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Get Inspired with This TBI Recovery Story

Independance, motivation and hope!

“My son Sharat suffered a severe traumatic brain injury 23 years ago leaving him with Aphasia and right sided weakness from his vision,hearing to his limbs. The lockdown in June was a great challenge for him as his caregivers stopped coming, no gym workouts and no outings for a coffee.

Being his mother and primary carer I feared that this was a hotbed for depression. I scoured the net and chanced upon FlintRehab. As there was a trial period it was safe for us to risk getting it across to Auckland.

His OT checked it out and felt that it was ideal. I can honestly second this.

He enjoys working on it and now after three months can do it on his own. His left hand helps his right hand. The FitMi video explains and shows him what to do, it gives him marks and applauds him too!!

He has to use both sides of his brain. The caregivers are OT students who returned enjoy working on it with him.

In three months there motivation built up in him with a drive to use his right hand. There is definitely a slight improvement in his right hand.

This encourages him as well as the caregivers to try harder.His overall mood is upbeat. He enjoys it, so much so, that it doesn’t matter if his caregiver is away.

FitMi is a blessing.”

Sharat’s review of FitMi home therapy, 10/10/2020

5 stars

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