The Experience of Head Injury

Coming Soon: Interviews, Overviews, and More

In the years that I have been a massage therapist I have been struck by a certain evident gap. Clients who arrive to work with me after a head injury describe relaying their symptoms in an emergency room, urgent care, or doctor's office and being turned away with odd looks and no answers to their questions and their anxieties.

The problem is not that healthcare providers are unaware of the range of symptoms. Nor that there is too little commonality. I hear the same symptoms described all the time. So must they, seeing so many more patients fresh from head injuries than I do. I suspect that the problem is more that--in general--providers in mainstream healthcare are not resourced with the time to listen let alone respond thoroughly to early, grasping attempts to describe symptoms that fall outside of the immediately treatable, clinically identifiable conditions.

So those who have been through head injuries are often just left with questions--and maybe new anxieties about whether they're on their own in their experience, whether saying what they're feeling is going to convince their doctors that they're crazy, unintelligent, anxious, or simply faking it.

It can be very difficult amidst the discomforts and new, often weighty circumstantial challenges after an injury to find good information on what to expect. It can be difficult to understand in the foreign universe of an injured body how to interpret even the most typical changes. The unfamiliarity of the body, the sensation, and the mind, previously an individual's most tangible and stable assets, breeds fear from which--living in that new body--there's never an escape.

The inability to effectively discuss the matter and receive explanations from time-pressed providers breeds frustration that compounds the difficulties of the post-injury state.

By contrast, bodywork offers an hour or more of time to listen and time to work through the difficulty of figuring out how to express the sensations of a radically transformed physical experience. I have thus been able to listen to these stories at length and provide the room in which to develop language not often sought outside of the context of injury. So, often I have been in the position to reassure clients distressed by symptoms that were not relevant in the urgent care or ER setting that those symptoms are at least familiar from other stories of head injury. Just hearing of that commonality if not predictability in this new terrain they're facing has often elicited a sigh and a palpable sense of relief.

The effects of the unnerving experience of no longer knowing one's body is largely a gap to be acknowledged and addressed more regularly within medicine. Knowledgable bodywork is a valuable offering within the gap. An hour or more on the table gives a client time to exist sensitively and with support--experiencing, integrating, and soothing the alarms relating to radical newness of felt experience. Clients are witnessed, eased, and affirmed real-time through those readaptations. They may even have the chance to begin identifying the sensation of okayness again--some sense of familiarity, ease, or just acceptance of what is within the new and often rapidly changing normal. Clients may have their first opportunity to describe intimately and in detail with a healthcare provider--or perhaps at all--the unfamiliar sensations and symptoms that came along with their injury. They may be able to begin connecting the sensations concretely with more awareness to the physical parts they arise from and to the physical triggers that influence them.

Having seen all this even in my relatively limited experience with this group--perhaps a dozen clients or other close contacts with recent head injuries, others with injuries further back--I have some projects in mind to help fill the gap.

I can't pretend to explain much from my position as a bodyworker, but I have by now heard a lot of stories. I do have some simple theories on some common symptoms, and for what it's worth I'm willing to present some hypotheses that may help patients navigate the biomechanical components of head injury.

But, from my point of view, one of the most valuable things I can offer out of my experience with this group so far is the opportunity to hear from the experiences of others. I have often felt while hearing yet another story of the sense of isolation, discouragement, and fear of the days immediately following a head injury that it would be helpful to share with patients, loved ones, and providers a broad, simple, thorough resource on what people experience after head injury.

Bodywork too as a whole stands to improve by folding in greater awareness, training, and capacity to handle this particular corner of care, and I'm working to contribute to that by continuing to carefully document my work with clients who have experienced head injury.

Coming soon, then: the raw and compiled experiences of my many head injured interviewees so far and those to come--on the experience of head injury. And perhaps some interpretive notes to the degree that they may be useful to explore.