Just a decade ago, the term “traumatic brain injury” was seldom seen or heard in the news. Of course TBIs, as these brain injuries are commonly called, have always existed, but waves of injured veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought about a heightened awareness of them. An estimated 33 percent of U.S. veterans wounded in the Middle East suffer from some level of TBI, a grim fact that has resulted in TBI being labeled the “signature injury” of these wars.
According to the Defense Department, since 2000, nearly 213,000 U.S. veterans have suffered brain injuries ranging from concussions to more invasive trauma. Many TBI awareness advocates worry that figure is likely much higher, given the sheer number of veterans who have suffered concussions in the vicinity of improvised explosive device (IED) blasts and the elusive nature of TBIs, which often makes them difficult for doctors to detect and diagnose.
Today, the military relies on a low-tech but somewhat effective method to determine whether a veteran suffers from a TBI. According to USA Today, questions such as “Were you wounded? Did you lose consciousness or get knocked out? Were you dazed, confused, or seeing stars?” are part of battery of tests used by the military to diagnose TBI.
This screening method has helped military doctors diagnose more cases of TBI (the military diagnosed about 13,000 TBIs each year from 2000 through 2006; but from 2007 through 2010 they diagnosed 28,000 cases per year), but there may be many veterans who have not yet been diagnosed and may be struggling to cope with the pressures of home and work, uncertain what is wrong with them.
Western Arkansas’s Times Record profiles one such veteran in a report published Monday. In 2004, Lt. Col. Tony Bryant was in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, but he did not require any immediate medical treatment. It wasn’t until several months later, while in Iraq serving a third combat deployment, that he started having seizures and blackouts. According to the Times Record, “Military doctors examined him but didn’t know what was wrong.”
By January 2011, Lt. Col. Bryant’s disabilities forced him to retire early from his 27-year army career, just 3 years shy of his goal. He relies on a Golden Retriever service dog named Stutz to detect oncoming seizures, alert family members, and perform other critical tasks.
Lt. Col. Bryant told the Times Record that TBI injuries and awareness were “something new” back in 2004. “It took them a lot of time to figure it out,” he added.
Stepped-up military screening offers some hope for vets suffering from a TBI, but a new device made by Florida-based Banyan Biomarkers promises to further reduce the number of undiagnosed and untreated TBIs. The device, which is expected to become available in late 2012, will allow doctors to detect the presence and severity of TBIs by measuring proteins emitted from dying brain cells found in the blood.
Rapid advances in the detection of TBI and an escalating awareness of these invisible injuries promise to ease the suffering of hundreds of thousand of vets and their families.
Hopefully our understanding and treatment of these complex injuries will keep pace with diagnostic technologies so that we may restore normal, healthy brain function to the thousands of service men and women grappling with TBI.