Military medical experts hope to dispel myths, advance treatment for mild traumatic brain injury
March 17, 2009
SCHWEINFURT, Germany -- Get a good night's sleep.
That is a seemingly simple, yet sometimes complicated, goal and advice from medical professionals as part of a reintegration program for redeploying Soldiers who might have suffered traumatic brain injuries, said Brig. Gen. Keith Gallagher, commander of Europe Regional Medical Command.
"When you come back from Afghanistan or Iraq, part of the screening program process is (confirming) if you had multiple concussive injuries 'downrange,'" Gallagher said.
The objective of the reintegration is to "get you to where you can function and go to sleep at night," he said. "Sleep is very important for the healing process."
And, contrary to popular misconceptions, the physical damage caused by mild traumatic brain injury will heal, added Dr. (Brig. Gen.) Loree Sutton, special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Health Affairs) for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
"One of the myths out there is that mild traumatic brain injuries, or concussions, means that somehow your brain is broken forever. No -- it's an injury," said Sutton, who is also director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
"If you have some long-term, later symptoms that pop up, that's probably post-traumatic stress. That's probably not related to the concussion," she said.
Sutton and Gallagher were joined for a recent meeting and video teleconference at the Schweinfurt Army Health Clinic by Dr. (Brig. Gen.) Rhonda Cornum, director of the Army's comprehensive soldier fitness program.
"We need to address (brain injury and psychological health) in a holistic fashion," said Cornum, who aims to see more components of Soldiers' total health come into focus, through prevention and training, across the Army culture.
"(Recruits) come in, and we do the (physical training) test twice a year. We do PT training every week. And so we have a program to make people stronger, but we have not had a program to worry about psychological, spiritual, emotional, family," she said.
"The Department (of Defense) has made an enormous investment in both better understanding concussions, mild TBI, and in psychological health," said Sutton, who admitted that doctors' and researchers' recent discoveries about the brain make this an "exciting" time to be working on injured servicemembers' behalf.
"When I was in medical school, in the '80s, we were taught what was then thought to be true -- you know, you're born into this world with all the brain cells you're ever going to get," Sutton said, quickly dispelling those old misconceptions with words like neurogenesis and neuroplasticity that define the brain's ability to recover and adapt.
Anyone who has likely suffered a traumatic brain injury should seek help with their care providers, stressed Gallagher.
"If they're having problems, they can go see their primary care provider. If they're still having problems, go see them again," he said.
"But don't stay awake watching movies because you can't go to sleep, and then wonder why you're getting up late for work. That's not helpful," Cornum added.