Nearly two million people are diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year, and they are one of the most common injuries sustained in the military. A staggering 93% of Combat Veterans in Afghanistan and Iraq have experienced artillery, rocket, or mortar attacks, so it is not surprising TBIs are widely considered a “signature injury” of war for Post-9/11 Veterans. In recognition of this March’s designation as “National Brain Injury Awareness Month,” we sat down with Home Base’s Chief of Traumatic Brain Injury, Health and Fitness Programs Ross Zafonte, DO, to discuss the top symptoms one should look out for and what treatment looks like at Home Base.
WHAT IS A TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY?
A Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) occurs when a person sustains a head injury or concussion and subsequently feels dazed, confused, or is knocked unconscious. The force may cause the brain to be jolted backward and forward, hitting the skull and causing damage to the internal lining, tissues, and blood vessels of the brain. Damages can range from mild to severe, resulting in internal bleeding, bruising, or swelling of the brain. Brain injuries can affect someone’s thinking, personality, and emotions.
While most people who experience a TBI can recover completely with rest, people who experience a severe TBI or multiple concussions will likely need medical treatment. Regardless of severity, any brain injury can cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue, weakened physical abilities, and impaired ability to concentrate. In addition, a brain injury may negatively affect memory, sleep, senses, and emotions, and may impede language and communication abilities.
“We’re unclear, but it appears that as many as 33% of our Veterans have had some significant exposure,” explained Ross Zafonte, DO, Chief of Traumatic Brain Injury, Health and Fitness Programs at Home Base, when asked about the rate of brain injuries amongst Veterans.
“Our Veterans have been exposed in several different ways,” he continued. “The most telling of which of these most recent conflicts is blasts and blast-related exposure, either by blasting open doors, being a breacher or being near an explosion. Theoretically people talk about blast exposures within 50 or 100 meters and the blasts come in a different number of different waves. It can hit you, travel through your organs and your arteries and other parts of your body to affect your brain, and then it also reflects off the back wall and could hit you again – so it’s very person and circumstance specific.”
In addition to blast-related exposure, Veterans are susceptible to everyday traumas such as car accidents, which can occur in theater or even at the base.
“Many of our Service Members are exposed to multiple different blasts – multiple exposures to injuries and not just one thing,” explained Dr. Zafonte. “Some of the longer-term residual effects are just now being able to be understood.”
Short-term memory is often impacted by brain injuries, particularly for those who have been exposed to multiple traumas. Adding to the complexity of injuries of this nature is the fact PTSD and TBIs have overlapping symptoms. Per Dr. Zafonte, there are studies that show a brain injury may make an individual more susceptible to PTSD.
“There is no purely typical track for brain injury because it is – as we often refer to it – among the most complicated diseases in the most complicated organ,” he explained. “One of the things that we have to realize – especially for those people coming back from the conflict- is that referring to a headache is sort of like saying “Boston”. It doesn’t tell us what part of town you’re in. It doesn’t tell us what building you’re in. It doesn’t tell us whether the street next to us is congested and whether we should go around.”
Therefore, it is necessary to look at the whole person in order to refine the diagnosis and treat the brain injury. As Dr. Zafonte laments, there is no magical drug or cure. In order to begin treatment, Zafonte and his team put together a clinical diagnosis base upon both a patient’s prior and present bio-psyche social issues and cognitive data. Together, they take a multi-disciplinary approach, using all the various therapies and treatments the Home Base team is imbibed with in order to find answers and heal the injury.
Symptoms of a traumatic brain injury, which vary depending on the extent and location of the brain damage, include the following:
- A headache or neck pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sleep problems
- Behavior and mood changes
TREATING TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURIES AT HOME BASE
Depending on the type and seriousness of your injury, you may be seen or treated by several different specialists at Home Base, including sports medicine doctors, neurologists, neuropsychologists, and psychiatrists. As a National Center of Excellence, Home Base is well-established for a holistic and innovative approach to clinical care. Through a long-standing partnership with Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, this unique partnership allows Home Base to utilize today’s most cutting-edge technology and treatment for TBIs. “We’ve invested and have extraordinary resources from a brain injury treatment and research perspective,” said Zafonte, when asked about the integration between Spaulding and Home Base. “Spaulding has been the TBI model center of the country.”
- Treatment will depend on the severity and location of the brain injury. Doctors will go over your options with you.
- Most mild traumatic brain injuries do not require surgery. If you have a serious brain injury with bleeding or swelling of the brain, you may need surgery to stop the bleeding and relieve pressure.
- If you’re having coordination or balance problems after a head injury, your doctor may send you to be evaluated by a physical therapist or occupational therapist.
Through Home Base’s innovative two-week Intensive Clinical Program (ICP), Veterans from all over the nation are eligible for TBI treatment at Home Base. Upon calling the program, Veterans are connected with one of Home Base’s Veteran Outreach Coordinators, all of whom have served as a combat Veteran. A Veteran or Service Member who expresses symptoms associated with a TBI is then put on a treatment track during their two weeks at Home Base to address their TBI.
Through Home Base’s Outpatient Clinic, Home Base offers local Veterans and Service Members consultations and treatment for combat-related traumatic brain injury, plus other vital services and support for veterans and their families. Combat-related conditions, such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are prevalent among a projected one-third of returning veterans.
INNOVATION AT HOME BASE
The neurology, neurosurgery and orthopedics programs at Home Base, which include specialists who treat traumatic brain injury, are consistently ranked among the best in the country by U.S. News & World Report.
“We’ve really been able to recruit people from throughout the world and have collaborations that go to Finland, Australia, Canada, much of Europe and that builds on expertise, it builds on findings, and it helps us deliver the best possible product to those who are part of Home Base,” Zafonte added. “It’s a community of people who are never satisfied that those who disability, those with any form of impairment or pain, are getting enough treatment. We want to see our present-day treatments advance. We want to focus on getting one day better every day. We want to focus on the next discoveries while delivering the best evidence-based care we can.”
GET CARE AT HOME BASE | SUPPORT THE MISSION
For those suffering from an invisible wound, these burdens of war continue even after a deployment. Through Home Base’s innovative approach to treatment, the burden of war can be alleviated for those suffering from invisible wounds such as brain injuries. This month’s designation as National Brain Injury Awareness Month is an impactful step in raising awareness of brain injuries and their effect on both military and civilian individuals and families alike.
Click here to learn more about these injuries and how you can connect to care at Home Base.
To support Home Base’s mission to heal the invisible wounds, such as TBIs and PTSD, click here.