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Invisible Injuries Plague Veterans with Brain Injuries

Veterans who have suffered a head injury can be frustrated when problems linger after returning home.
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Injuries and conditions that are not "physically visible" are often ignored or discriminated against in family, social circles and the workplace.  Many people who have suffered depression and anxiety over the long term are well aware of this never-never land.  But traumatic head injuries also appear "invisible" and are a growing challenge as more than a million Americans suffer from head injuries each year -- many among our returning veterans.

Lingering mental injuries and recovery impact families, friendships and our communities.  We can all be alert to these challenges in the people we care about -- and help them find the resources available to them locally and in the health care and career professions.  This is a time to put friendship first -- and take a proactive approach to supporting an invisible, but very real condition that affects the quality of life on our injured friends as well as their families.

Problem: Lingering Head Injury Recovery

For soldiers who have suffered a head injury, it can be frustrating when problems linger after returning home.

  • memory problems
  • concentration problems
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • depression
  • sleep disturbances

Issues: Memory, Sleep and Related Brain Symptoms

Because there may be no physical signs of injury, issues like memory complaints or sleep disturbances that follow mild traumatic brain injury can be underestimated or overlooked by veterans and their families.

Each year, 1.5 million Americans suffer non-fatal brain injuries, and three-quarters of those injuries are mild traumatic brain injury, or concussion.

19% of Veterans Report Brain Injury

A RAND Corporation survey of 1,965 service members who had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan found that 19% reported probable traumatic brain injury.

According to P. Tyler Roskos, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuropsychology at Saint Louis University, coping with mild traumatic brain injury symptoms can be difficult when soldiers return home after combat.

“Often, servicemen and women return from duty and complain of memory and concentration problems, fatigue, headaches, depression and sleep disturbances,” said Roskos. “Family members describe changes in the personality of their loved one, such as aggressiveness, irritability or hypervigilance.

“Soldiers say ‘People can’t see I’m hurt,’” Roskos said. “Sometimes soldiers themselves don’t see it. It can be difficult for everyone.”

Solutions: Roskos offers the following advice for those struggling with mild traumatic brain injury:

Be Patient

When it comes to mild traumatic brain injury, time is a healer. The best news is that most recovery occurs in the six months following an injury. It can be a relief, Roskos says, for veterans to know their symptoms are likely to improve. Those with head injuries should be patient with themselves, and families should be aware that time may solve some of the early frustrations after a soldier returns home.

Seek Treatment

In addition to treatment for the head injury itself, veterans should seek medical help for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well, if they occur. Both can complicate recovery, and the sooner a patient receives treatment, the more quickly life will be able to return to normal.

Talk to Other Vets

Talking with others with similar experiences can help, and can remind soldiers that their symptoms are common after a head injury. It’s important to seek out resources in the community, such as a veteran’s association.

Enlist Help Reentering the Workforce

Help with Coping Srategies: Consulting with a medical or rehabilitation professional can help veterans learn strategies to compensate for the effects of mild TBI that may ease the transition back to work or school.

Help with Transitioning: These professionals can also help them communicate with their school or employers regarding any accommodations, if necessary.

To read about a U.S. Department of Defense-funded Saint Louis University study aimed at learning more about brain injury, visit

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, liver disease, heart/lung disease, aging and brain disease, and infectious disease.

Editor, Carolyn Allen


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Publication Date: 11/13/2010
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