We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries

We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries
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Recently, when asked about traumatic brain injuries sustained by U.S. service members during an Iranian missile attack on Al-Asad airbase in Iraq, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE characterized the injuries as just “headaches.”

Trump’s statement was mistaken but not surprising. For too long, traumatic brain injury (“TBI”) a low-profile chronic condition, has been unrecognized, misdiagnosed and misunderstood. For many survivors, the tragic physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral consequences of TBI will last a lifetime.

Headaches are only one common symptom of traumatic brain injury. Mental confusion, difficulty concentrating, impaired memory, dizziness, aggression, insomnia, instability, speech problems, blurred vision and seizures are also frequent consequences of all forms of brain injury, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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Today, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons reports that there are an estimated 5.3 million people in the United States disabled as a result of traumatic brain injury, which kills over 50,000 Americans every year — more deaths than either breast cancer (42,000) or opioid overdoses (47,000). Traumatic brain injury is a significant public health crisis but still a secret to most Americans.

Especially at risk are the brave men and women of our armed forces, more than 410,000 of whom have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries since 2000, many as a result of blasts from missiles and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Such injuries are the “signature wound” of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that individuals with traumatic brain injury are four times more likely to develop mental illness, with a 65 percent higher incidence of schizophrenia and a 59 percent greater likelihood of depression.

Most disturbing, individuals who have experienced a concussion are three times more likely to commit suicide. Repetitive head trauma  worsens the problem.

Yet because brain injuries are largely invisible to the naked eye, we often ignore the serious repercussions. Traumatic brain injury remains misunderstood by much of the general public and therefore often stigmatized. It is a silent epidemic in our country, and it deserves serious attention.

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Until recently, it was common for athletes who suffered a concussion to return to the game, just as soldiers returned to the field of battle.

Thankfully, organizations from the Department of Defense to youth soccer leagues are starting to pay more attention to the severity of these injuries and developing comprehensive prevention and treatment strategies. But there are no uniform protocols and rules nationwide.

Rehabilitation services and support after initial acute treatment are not readily available.  Brain injury survivors and their families are not provided with necessary resources and support.

We must speak up about traumatic brain injury to encourage prevention, promote research, improve outcomes and to assist survivors, caregivers and families to obtain necessary treatment.

While the president, just like many Americans, mistakes traumatic brain injury for a simple headache, we as a nation should be more focused on prevention, treatment and support for the members of our military and the millions of civilians and their families who bear the burden of this condition.

Every year, the National Cancer Institute dedicates more than $500 million to breast cancer research, which has contributed to dramatic improvements in survival rates.

With 5.3 million sufferers and 50,000 Americans killed by traumatic brain injury annually, we need adequate funds to address this deadly but often ignored affliction.  

Shana De Caro, the vice chair of the Brain Injury Association of America, and Michael V. Kaplen, chair of the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council, are partners in the law firm of De Caro & Kaplen, LLP. They can be reached at brainlaw.com.