Traumatic Brain Injuries and Recent Veterans: An Overview

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Traumatic brain injuries (abbreviated as TBI) are physical injuries with psychological effects. TBI occurs when trauma to the head results in the brain shifting inside the skull. Motor vehicle accidents, bomb blasts, blows to the head, gunshot wounds or other penetrating head injuries, and slip and falls are examples of the type of injuries that may cause TBI. The condition can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms can mirror other conditions such as PTSD or dementia. Many people may simply attribute a change in personality to the psychological aftereffects of the traumatic event itself and do not realizing that symptoms such as sudden mood shifts, hallucinations, difficulty communicating, confusion, and poor memory are typical of an injury to the brain.

Unfortunately, blast injuries to the brain are becoming a characteristic of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Department of Defense statistics compiled in 2017, an estimated 22 percent of combat casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are brain injuries. For comparison, it is estimated that 12 percent of all Vietnam veterans suffered some form of TBI. Veterans who are diagnosed with TBI also present symptoms for longer than civilians who are diagnosed with the same condition.

Widespread Use of IEDs

The widespread use of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely responsible for the rising numbers of veterans struggling with this condition. When the force of a blast from an IED or other explosive hits a person, their head is forced in the direction of the blast. When the blast wave passes, the person’s head will stabilize. This motion may sound familiar to anyone who has ever experienced whiplash in a car accident. When a blast (or any other force) is strong enough, a person’s head can be forced to move so quickly that the brain inside their skull continues to move after the skull has ceased motion. The resulting impact of the soft brain against the hard inside of the skull can cause physical trauma such as contusion and lesions to the organ of the brain. This trauma can cause the “death” of the neurons that are responsible for transmitting messages to and from different areas of the brain and which control the body’s functions.

Different parts of the brain control different functions, so symptoms of TBI depend on the area of the brain that was affected. Symptoms of TBI vary widely and may include effects such as increased anger or impulsivity, problems reading, writing, or otherwise understanding language, sensory difficulties such as tinnitus or blurred vision, seizures, memory loss, headaches, and behavioral changes. The severity of TBI can range from a mild concussion to total loss of consciousness and a vegetative state or even death. Although most TBIs are classified as mild, long-term symptoms may be observed.

Symptoms of TBI

It can be difficult to separate symptoms of TBI from other conditions.  For example, it is not uncommon for a veteran who has experienced an IED explosion in combat to suffer from both TBI and PTSD. Both conditions can cause symptoms such as insomnia, depression, irritability, and anxiety. It is important that a qualified professional assess all possible conditions to ensure that you are being properly treated. Treatments for TBI may include a combination of cognitive, speech, physical, and occupational therapy as well as medication to control some particular symptoms.

Though diagnoses of TBI are becoming more frequent, American veterans have struggled with the condition for over a century, since the use of bombs became a common war tactic in World War I. TBI can be an extremely serious condition, and its effects on veterans are only just now being fully researched. If you believe you may have experienced TBI, you should contact your doctor or neurologist. If the TBI and its resulting effects can be connected to your military service, you may be entitled to VA benefits.

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