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Traumatic Brain Injury Among Veterans Returning From Afghanistan and Iraq

Traumatic Brain Injury Among Veterans Returning From Afghanistan and Iraq

Traumatic Brain InjuryOne of the most commonly encountered weapons in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom is the improvised explosive device (IED).1-3 From October 2001 until January 2005, explosive devices were responsible for nearly 80% of all casualties reported to the Joint Theater Trauma Registry.4 Compared with casualties in earlier conflicts, military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq incur a greater percentage of injuries to the face, head, and neck.2

Improvements to personal protective equipment and vehicle armor have reduced death rates, but by improving survival, they may have increased the incidence of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among wartime casualties and perhaps also among veterans who appear physically uninjured. (We use the term “veteran” as an inclusive term for military personnel who served in a combat zone, regardless of the current status as a discharged veteran, active duty service member, or member of the military reserve or National Guard.)

This article addresses the epidemiology, diagnosis, and treatment of mild TBI among combat veterans, with a particular focus on blast injury and the presence of comorbid posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Causes of TBI

Although current media and scientific attention is focused on TBI from wartime incidents, the causes of TBI among US military service members and veterans include combat, training accidents, and nonmilitary accidents. The incidents are typically associated with blunt head injuries in military service resulting from motor vehicle accidents, military aircraft accidents, accidents during field training exercises or hand-to-hand combat, and combat. Penetrating head trauma occurs but is far less frequent than either blunt injury or injury from blast exposure. Combat experience can lead to blast exposure, but certain military occupational specialists, such as explosive ordnance disposal or military bomb disposal experts, will experience repeated blast exposure in their daily work. Military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are associated with exposure to the IED, typically a small weapon that contains 20 to 30 pounds of explosive, and the often larger vehicle-borne IED, a device with charge sizes up to several thousand pounds of explosive.

There are 3 mechanisms by which an IED causes injury: blast, blunt impact, and fragment penetration. Of these mechanisms, penetrating injury is uncommon compared with blunt impact and blast injury, and when it does occur, the medical history readily informs the psychiatrist’s diagnostic task.5 The diagnosis of mild TBI often is far more challenging, particularly in the common clinical scenario of comorbid psychiatric illness.

Although the clinical setting of a returning combat veteran suggests an epidemiological setting with elevated risk of TBI, cases of TBI are almost certainly being missed. Moderate or severe TBI is very likely to have resulted in medical care in a military setting, and records of this care should be available to the psychiatrist. Other factors contribute to the possibility of a missed TBI diagnosis, including an incomplete appreciation of TBI sequelae, attributing the clinical presentation to other psychiatric diagnoses, and misperceptions of blast injury biomechanics. On this latter point, we note that a study of blast injuries in civilians showed a missed diagnosis rate of 36% of primary blast–induced TBI cases.6 The complexity of trauma patients with other injuries may contribute to a missed TBI diagnosis, as also may the incorrect belief that loss of consciousness is necessary for TBI.7

What is already known about traumatic brain injury (TBI) (and its comorbidities) in veterans?

? Combat veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq are at elevated risk for TBI and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
? The pathophysiology of blunt head injury is better understood than that for blast injury.
? Psychiatrists tend to be more comfortable diagnosing and treating mood and anxiety disorders than they are diagnosing and treating TBI.

What new information does this article provide?

? Most psychiatric consequences of TBI respond to a symptom-based approach established by the nearest equivalent DSM-IV disorder.
? Body armor is protective against blast injury to the lungs, thus allowing survival from injuries that were previously lethal.
? Stimulant medication can be useful for post-TBI cognitive difficulty, but it should be used with great caution in patients with comorbid anxiety.

What are the implications for psychiatric practice?

? Psychiatrists must consider TBI when evaluating or treating veterans, especially combat veterans.
? The psychiatric signs and symptoms of TBI can be similar to those of PTSD and thus may be easily overlooked.
? TBI is associated with many medical and neurological comorbidities, and an interdisciplinary team approach provides optimal care.

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