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Medical systems throughout the U.S., especially Veterans Affairs Medical Centers (VA) are seeing an increase in traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan.
TBI has always been a tragic consequence of war, but military and health care providers are seeing a greater incidence of head and brain trauma in the current conflict. OIF and OEF casualties are different from past war casualties because the fighting is different, including a significant increase in explosive attacks (e.g. Improvised Exploding Devices (IEDs), mines, car bombs, and rocket propelled grenades). Military troops may be repeatedly exposed to blast explosions, and while their body armor may keep them alive, their head and brain (as well as their arms and legs) are vulnerable to significant harm (“polytrauma”). In addition, military emergency medical care and medical evacuation have improved in recent years. Injured soldiers who would likely have died in past military conflicts are now surviving and requiring skilled medical care and extensive rehabilitation.
Blast-related TBI can range from mild concussion to severe injury, resulting in coma or even death. While each brain injury is unique, common complaints can be identified. Given that the brain injuries are acquired in highly stressful and traumatic situations, it is not uncommon for blast-related TBI survivors to also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD and TBI symptoms can share many similarities, such as insomnia, impaired memory, poor concentration, depression or irritability. PTSD symptoms can also intensify the symptoms of brain injury and can pose significant challenges to rehabilitation. Military personnel may also experience undiagnosed brain injuries due to blast exposure.
Proper medical care can diagnose and treat the mental health needs as well as the physical and cognitive rehabilitation needs of polytrauma survivors.
Most people who sustain a TBI will experience temporary or permanent physical, cognitive, or emotional changes. The VA is helping polytrauma survivors reintegrate into civilian life through a newly created polytrauma system of care. Centered in four Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers (Minneapolis, Palo Alto, Richmond, and Tampa) and spread across the U.S. through specially designated VA hospitals, the system of care addresses patients' complex medical, psychological, and rehabilitation needs, with a special emphasis on brain injury. Specialized services include inpatient and outpatient medical and rehabilitation care, and proactive, long-term case management. Service can also include long-term care for those who cannot return home because of the severity of their injuries.
If you or a loved one is a veteran and has sustained a brain injury and you'd like to learn more about support services, contact the Minneapolis VA Medical Center at 866-414-5058 or the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance at 800-669-6442.
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