The diagnosis of over 110 service members with traumatic brain injury as a result of a recent missile attack on Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, has raised national awareness on the impact of TBI, often known as a silent epidemic due to symptoms that are invisible and take time to diagnose. The recent incident prompted the need for continued education on TBI – including a heavy focus by the Army on educating service members on the importance of early detection and treatment.
During Brain Injury Awareness Month in March, the Army is promoting public awareness, urging Soldiers and caregivers to pay attention to the symptoms of TBIs, which can range from mild concussions to severe brain damage. Recognizing the symptoms and acting on them is important when it comes to treatment. When symptoms are prolonged the impact can be life changing.
“I wouldn’t be retiring next year if I had treatment sooner; it was not my plan.” This attention-catching quote featured on an Army Brain Injury Awareness poster shares the story of retired Capt. Chris Frost, who retired from the Army in December 2019 after serving 22 years.
“I was incapacitated with migraines – I couldn’t talk, walk or do anything,” said Frost. It was seven years after his last blast exposure when he started to exhibit symptoms that were later linked to a TBI.
TBI symptoms may include one or more of the following: headaches, dizziness, balance problems, depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, sensitivity to light and noise, and vision concerns. Some symptoms are independent occurrences while others are related to each other in what is known as symptom clusters.
“The challenge is identifying that you have an issue. Most don’t even know they have an issue – you get exposed, dust it off and keep going,” said Frost. He said that often symptoms go ignored until the problem can’t be ignored any longer. His injuries eventually required surgery. Frost admits that retiring early wasn’t his career plan. He now hopes to use his story to encourage other Soldiers to know the symptoms of TBI and not to wait to seek treatment.
“Understand when you potentially have problem and seek help from a medical professional,” he said.
The Defense Department reports over 400,000 service members have been diagnosed with TBI since 2000. Last year’s DoD numbers for TBI among Soldiers during the first three quarters of 2019 was 8,667, a total that includes both active duty, Guard and Reserve.
DoD protocol calls for TBI testing of service members who were within 50 meters of an explosion, were exposed to a series of explosions, had a direct blow to the head, or who exhibit symptoms such as headache, dizziness, memory problems, balance problems, nausea, vomiting, difficulty concentrating, irritability and visual disturbance. The tests can take up to two days to complete.
To help medical professionals identify symptoms of TBI, in 2018 the Concussion Management Tool and MACE 2 (Military Acute Concussion Evaluation) were introduced at the National DoD Provider Training on Traumatic Brain Injury.
According to Lt. Col. Cecilia Najera, acting director of the Army Traumatic Brain Injury Program, U.S. Army Office of the Surgeon General, it takes between 15 and 20 minutes for the tools to be administered by a medic or other healthcare professionals.
“The best results are if the assessment is done within 24 hours with a follow-up in 24-72 hours,” Najera said.
While there are tools designed to help diagnose the symptoms of a concussion, currently there is no tool or device that can definitively diagnose a concussion.
“This is key – you can’t treat or diagnose concussion but can treat and diagnose the symptom. We encourage Soldiers to report issues to their medical provider – the sooner you get seen then you can get treated before it becomes a major issue” said Najera.