Mild traumatic head injuries can lead to a lifetime of health issues for soldiers

Mild traumatic head injuries can lead to a lifetime of health issues for soldiers
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To date, 109 servicemen are reported to have suffered traumatic brain injuries as a result of the Iranian airstrikes in Iraq in January, and the number continues to rise.  For some, symptoms of a TBI will not surface until months or even years.

Whereas once we thought mild traumatic brain injuries were harmless, we now know that these are a major and ongoing public health issue. 

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can range from mild to severe. Those surviving moderate and severe brain injuries may have long-lasting — even life-long — disabilities. 

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Mild brain injuries, commonly known as concussions, are generally associated with short-term symptoms, but, in fact, may have long-lasting neurologic effects known as a post-concussive syndrome (PCS).

PCS afflicts up to 20 percent of concussion victims each year. There are a reported nearly 4 million concussions from sports and recreational activities alone each year. When adding concussions from falls, vehicular accidents and assaults, the number balloons enormously and affects millions more. 

A constellation of difficult symptoms is associated with PCS. These may include chronic headaches, depression, cognitive, memory, vision and balance issues, as well as sleep disorders. A recent study found that only 27 percent of studied PCS patients fully recovered, meaning a striking 73 percent had symptoms that never resolved. Even among those who did recover, one-third took longer than a year. Link

And, we haven’t begun to talk about our armed service members.  More than 413,000 service members were diagnosed with a TBI between 2000 and Q3 of 2019. Over 80 percent of these were concussions.

Concussions are a serious public health problem in the military. Many active duty service people, even those outside of conflict zones,  risk suffering a concussion in the regular course of training and work.  Blast waves, shooting large weaponry during training missions, falls during rigorous physical exercise, motor vehicle accidents and rough flight landings are all regular occurrences that present the risk of concussion.   

The repercussions of even a single concussion can last long after servicemen and women leave the military; for some, they last a lifetime. Studies have shown that veterans and service members who have had a concussion: 

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Are we as a country doing enough to protect the hundreds of thousands of armed service members in training and at U.S. bases around the globe? Why haven’t we seen more progress in concussion research and development when other areas of medicine have advanced dramatically? Treatment for concussions is still primitive and focused on the symptoms and not a cure.  The standard of care today is effectively the same as it was decades ago: rest and progressive return to activity depending upon the symptoms and signs.  

Congress, the Pentagon, the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical industry need to increase commitment and advancement of drug research and development so that one day we’ll have an effective treatment and today’s brave servicemen and women will not be tomorrow’s statistic. 

Rest is not enough.

Vishal Bansal, M.D is a director of Trauma Surgery at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego and the chief scientific officer and co-founder of Oxeia Biopharmaceuticals. Dr. Bansal is a clinically active trauma and general surgeon, as well as a funded surgical scientist focusing on the physiologic response to brain injury.