Protecting minds, saving lives

Battling traumatic head injuries in South Africa

by Tia

In South Africa, as in many other countries, head injuries are a significant cause of disability, particularly among children and young adults. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is widespread contributing to both mortality and disability rates nationwide.

As World Head Injury Awareness Day draws near, Mande Toubkin, general manager of emergency, trauma, transplant, and corporate social investment at Netcare, emphasises the profound impact of head injury and its ability to irrevocably transform lives and plunge families into unimaginable distress.

“Despite the significant impact of TBI, the field remains inadequately addressed, with much room for detailed research and attention to the needs of individuals and families affected. With a considerable portion of South Africa’s population affected by TBIs, there is an urgent need for increased awareness regarding prevention and effective management. It is crucial to acknowledge that behind the statistics are real-life tragedies – road accidents, falls, and acts of violence that shatter lives in an instant.

“Men often bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to head injuries while children, with their boundless energy and fearless spirit, are also extremely vulnerable. From playground mishaps to the escapades of adolescence, every bump carries potential consequences,” cautions Toubkin.

Toubkin emphasises that many head injuries are preventable, with helmets, seatbelts, and child car seats as armour against the unpredictable. “As families plan recreational activities over the upcoming long weekends, it’s essential for the public to be reminded about the importance of wearing helmets – whether on a motorcycle or a bicycle – and using car seats for children while strapping up with seatbelts,” she adds.

First aid for head injury

Toubkin’s guidance is straightforward. “Swift action is paramount as, with each passing moment, lives hang in the balance. The message is simple – contact an emergency medical services provider such as Netcare 911 (082 911) for help as soon as possible. While waiting for paramedics to arrive, try to keep the person’s head and neck still, as trauma to the head may mean possible spinal injuries,” she notes.

When to seek medical attention

“It is understandable that parents and other caregivers will be unsure about when to seek medical attention if their child has sustained a blow to the head, especially when it is a younger child. Rest assured medical facilities routinely assess children with head injuries, to determine if further treatment may be required,” says Toubkin.

“While there’s a misconception that urgent medical attention is only necessary if a child loses consciousness, it’s crucial to note that a blackout isn’t the sole indicator of severity in head injuries. Even without loss of consciousness, a child may experience a severe concussion.”

Symptoms can vary widely and persist for extended periods. While young children may exhibit similar concussion symptoms to older individuals, diagnosing concussion in small children can be challenging. Seeking medical evaluation after a suspected head injury is essential for accurate assessment, determining potential concussion, or identifying more severe complications like skull fractures or brain bleeds. During consultations, medical practitioners will also assess accompanying skin injuries and possible neck trauma.

Concussion symptoms: What to look out for

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Blurred or fuzzy vision
  • Dizziness
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Balance issues
  • Fatigue

Changes in sleep patterns:

  • Increased sleep duration
  • Decreased sleep duration
  • Difficulty falling asleep

Symptoms to monitor in young children:

  • Excessive crying
  • Persistent headaches
  • Alterations in play or behaviour
  • Changes in feeding, sleeping, or nursing patterns
  • Increased irritability or tantrums
  • Loss of interest in typical activities or toys
  • Regression in acquired skills, like toilet training
  • Difficulty walking or maintaining balance
  • Impaired attention.

Netcare’s Trauma Injury Prevention programme

Netcare’s emergency departments handle a significant volume of head injury cases annually, prompting the implementation of the Trauma Injury Prevention (TIP) programme to address this pressing concern.

TIP focuses on preventive education initiatives primarily aimed at children, the youth, and older people. Protective measures advocated by the programme include ensuring correct usage of child car seats and booster seats during travel, teaching bicycle safety and the importance of helmet use, educating the public on street and car safety, and minimising fall risks. Additionally, the TIP team emphasises the importance of protective gear like helmets during cycling, quad biking, rollerblading, and skateboarding to instil safety habits early on.

Protecting children from head injuries

  • Ensure proper use of child car seats and booster seats, and always strap your child in securely during travel.
  • Educate your child on bicycle safety and emphasise the importance of wearing a helmet.
  • Instruct your child on safe practices around streets and vehicles.
  • Teach your child about playground safety to reduce the risk of falls from heights.

In conclusion, Toubkin encourages the public to use Netcare’s emergency response capabilities, available through the Netcare App. The app ensures rapid assistance during emergencies with features such as a contact button for Netcare 911, a 60-second call-back option, and automatic geolocation. Furthermore, its ambulance tracker offers real-time updates on estimated arrival times, reassuring and alleviating stress during critical moments.

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