Soldiers in combat run a very real risk of sustaining head injuries. The New England Journal of Medicine (2008) reports that 10 to 20 percent of U.S. soldiers who serve in Iraq suffer traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) such as concussions.
Those who serve in combat or are otherwise exposed to traumatic experiences are also at risk of PTSD. A growing body of research suggests a possible link between head injuries and combat PTSD.
Understanding Traumatic Brain Injury
When a person experiences a concussion or other TBI, the brain is actually physically altered:
- A concussion causes all the brain cells (neurons) to fire in a pattern similar to a mini-seizure.
- This firing of neurons produces chemical changes in the brain that can affect the way it responds to emotions.
- Because of these changes, those who experience traumatic brain injuries may be more vulnerable to PTSD than others.
Connection Between Veterans PTSD and Concussions
The New England Journal of Medicine (2008) study surveyed more than 2,000 veterans of the Iraq war. Three to four months after returning home, 43.9 percent of veterans who had suffered a concussion also met the criteria for PTSD, including flashbacks, irritability and difficulty sleeping.
Soldiers who suffered severe concussions seem to show a higher chance of developing PTSD than those with milder head injuries. Roughly 27 percent of service members who remained conscious during their concussions met PTSD criteria. Of those who blacked out during their head injuries, almost 44 percent met PTSD diagnosis standards.
While these results suggest that traumatic brain injury increases the risk of PTSD, not all scientists are sure this is the case. Here’s some evidence that scientists must weigh:
- Experiences causing head injuries are often emotionally and psychologically traumatic, making it difficult to pinpoint the root of PTSD.
- Symptoms of traumatic brain injury and PTSD can be very similar, making exact diagnosis confusing.
Dealing With PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury
If you’re experiencing the symptoms of head injury and PTSD, the good news is that many treatments for PTSD are also effective for TBI. A visit to your doctor can get you on the road to feeling better. When coping with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD:
- Accept that head injuries produce some emotional stress and physical pain. Your doctor will let you know what symptoms to expect.
- Get back to your regular routine slowly, gradually returning to work or school as soon you’re able to do so.
- Let your family inâ€”family support typically speeds up recovery times.
- Therapy, such as cognitive processing therapy, may help treat some of your symptoms.
Carey, B. (2008). Battle concussions tied to stress disorder. Retrieved June 27, 2010, from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/31/health/31brain.html?_r=1.
Hoge, C. W., McGurk, D., Thomas, J. L., Cox, A. L., Engel, C. C.