Head trauma is among the most common forms of torture. Even repeated minor head trauma can cause permanent damage to brain tissues. This can in turn cause permanent physical handicap. Lacerations and abrasions of the head and their late consequences should be documented as above. Scalp bruises are frequently not visible externally acutely unless there is swelling. Bruises also may be difficult to see in dark skinned individuals, but will be tender to palpation.
Survivors of torture often report that they were unconscious at times, but it is impossible for them to know what happened unless they were with a reliable witness. It is necessary to try to differentiate between loss of consciousness following blows to the head, post-traumatic epilepsy (see below), asphyxiation, pain and exhaustion, or any combination of these.
Many victims of torture have suffered blows to the head, and many complain of persistent or recurrent headaches, whether or not they have sustained any head injury. Generally the headaches are psychosomatic or due to tension headache. In some cases with a history of repeated blows to the head, it is possible to feel areas of hyperaesthesia (extreme sensitivity of neurological sensation) and some thickening of the scalp from scar tissue.
Headache may also be the initial symptom of an expanding subdural haematoma. There may be associated psychological changes of acute onset, and a CT scan or MRI must be arranged urgently, if one is available. It may also be appropriate to arrange psychological or neuropsychological assessment. Soft tissue swelling and/or haemorrhage will usually be detected with CT or MRI. In cases of trauma caused by falls, contracoup lesions (on the opposite side to the point of impact) of the brain may be observed on investigation, whereas following direct trauma, the main damage to the brain may be seen directly under the point of impact.
Violent shaking of the upper body has been reported as a form of torture (as it has as a form of child abuse). Survivors complain of severe headaches and persistent changes in cognitive function. In these cases no injuries are visible. Shaking can lead to death due to cerebral oedema and subdural bleeding. Retinal haemorrhages have been noted on post-mortem examination and, when seen in children, are very suggestive of shaking injuries.
Immediately after severe head injury there may be concussive convulsions, but these do not necessarily lead to epilepsy. Convulsions (or seizures) in the first week or so after a severe head injury tend to be tonic-clonic. They may recur for a year or more, but are not generally lifelong. Severe head injuries leading to brain lesions, specifically in the temporal lobe, can cause convulsions that start months or years after the incident. The latter are complex partial seizures.
Typically (>90% of cases), complex partial seizures start with an aura (a strange feeling that precedes the convulsion). This is followed by an absence that can last up to two minutes. Concurrent automatic movements, particularly lip smacking have been reported. After these episodes there is usually a period of a few minutes of disorientation. Often the aura is described as a strange feeling in the stomach, but it may involve bizarre smells or tastes. These must be differentiated from the re-experiencing phenomena of PTSD where the person is always capable of being roused and never completely loses consciousness.
In most countries the prevalence of epilepsy in the population is 2%. About 65% of epilepsy is due to complex partial seizures. The cause of complex partial seizures is unknown in 45% of cases. Traumatic events including birth events account for 3% of it. The likelihood of acquiring epilepsy after a head injury depends on the severity of the injury (see table).
|Degree of head injury||Loss of consciousness||Relative risk of epilepsy||Duration of increased risk|
|Minor||< 30 minutes||1.5||5 years|
|Moderate||< 24 hours||2.9 (three times)||—|
|Severe||> 24 hours||17.2 (17 times)||20 years|
Survivors of torture rarely have an accurate account of their head injuries, and unless they have an external reference, they cannot know for certain how long they were unconscious. One problem with attributing epilepsy to head trauma is that there is rarely any information about the individual’s neurological state prior to the incident.