Sunday, January 20, 2008

Army Aims to Better Identify Soldiers with Brain Injuries

By C. Todd Lopez
Special to American Forces Press Service

An Army report released yesterday outlines how the service can better identify and help soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.

The report contains some 47 recommendations to help the Army better prevent, screen, diagnose, treat and research traumatic brain injury, said Brig. Gen. Donald Bradshaw, who led the task force charged with investigating TBI. Bradshaw is commander of Southeast Regional Medical Command and Eisenhower Regional Medical Center, at Fort Gordon, Ga.

"Our report indicates that, like our civilian counterparts, the Army has done well in the identifying and treatment of severe or penetrating traumatic brain injury, but is challenged to understand, diagnose and treat personnel who have suffered short-term or persistent symptoms of mild TBI," he said. "The task force identified opportunities for improvement as well as best-practice guidelines."

The general said 80 percent of those who suffer from mild TBI, commonly known as a concussion, recover completely. Some 10 to 20 percent of soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with experience in combat may have suffered symptoms consistent with mild TBI.

Today, eight of the recommendations made by the task force have already been implemented, said Col. Judith Ruiz, deputy director for rehabilitation and reintegration with the Office of the Surgeon General.

"We have made significant progress to take care of soldiers and to standardize practices across the Army medical department," she said.

Some of the recommendations that have already been implemented include:

-- Working with interagency and civilian groups to better define TBI;

-- Implementing in-theater TBI screening and documentation for all soldiers exposed to brain injury-inducing trauma;

-- Adding TBI-specific questions to deployment-related health assessments;

-- Developing a proposal on the appropriate functions of a "TBI center of excellence";

-- Proposing the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center as the core of the new center of excellence;

-- Optimizing the positioning of clinical, educational and research activities;

-- Centralizing the evaluation of the scientific merit, clinical utility, and priority of new treatment strategies, devices or interventions; and

-- Adapting the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation overprint as an approved Department of the Army form to document mild TBI closest to the point of injury.

Ruiz said 31 additional recommendations are in progress, four are planned, and four are in the process of being transferred to other agencies.

For soldiers in theater, the most common cause of brain injury is a blast, such as from an improvised explosive device. But sometimes such blasts do not cause visible external injuries.

"Brain injury does not have to have outside symptoms, such as bleeding," Bradshaw said. "It may, but doesn't have to. That is one of the compounding things; folks may look totally normal, but be dazed."

Because some victims of IEDs or other blasts do not have external injures, they may feel they have not been injured at all -- even if they did sustain a mild TBI.

"It's hard to identify TBI when soldiers don't come forward and don't identify," Bradshaw said. "Some of the actions that have been taken (include) a very big ongoing education process for leaders, soldiers and family members."

The Army launched the post-traumatic stress disorder/mild traumatic brain injury chain teaching program in 2007 to help soldiers better identify signs and symptoms of these conditions and to reinforce the collective responsibility to take care of each other.

The Army is also working to educate the civilian medical community about mild TBI so that soldiers in the reserve components, who may not have full-time access to military medical care, also can be identified, said Col. (Dr.) Jonathan Jaffin, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command.

"One of the things we are concerned with and ... one of the points behind the whole chain teaching was trying to get the message out to the country, not just the active-duty force, Guard and reserve," he said. "(We wanted) the country, including providers throughout the country, to be aware of mild TBI and concussions and the long-term symptoms that some people may be having."

Bradshaw said Army leaders at all levels are committed to the good health and well-being of all soldiers and are proactively addressing the issue of TBI. "Continued research in this area can only help us more clearly understand the medical impacts of the war and the best ways to prevent, recognize and treat soldiers with TBI," he said.

(C. Todd Lopez works for the Army News Service.)

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