June 7, 2006 in Nation/World

U.S. troops suffering minor concussions

Gregg Zoroya USA Today
 

Thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan may be risking permanent brain damage by returning to combat with relatively minor but undiagnosed concussions, often caused by bomb blasts, military researchers say.

Doctors say they are only now understanding the scope of the problem.

Researchers screening returning soldiers and Marines at four military bases found that about 10 percent suffered at least a minor brain injury during combat. About 20 percent of troops in front-line infantry units suffered such injuries.

The injuries frequently go undiagnosed because troops have no apparent wounds or may not know they suffered a concussion, doctors say.

Medics and field doctors often aren’t aware of what happens during fighting.

More than 500,000 soldiers and Marines have served in or near Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, sometimes more than once.

“This blast group is going to be potentially huge,” says Angela Drake, a neuropsychologist with the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, which researches and treats brain injuries. “We’re looking at thousands of potential patients.”

Military doctors describe brain injuries as a signature wound of the war. Advances in body armor save soldiers who might have died in previous conflicts, but blast waves from roadside bombs can cause brain damage.

U.S. troops in Iraq are exposed to dozens of bombings each month.

“We’ve seen patients who have had three deployments and have had some (head) injury on every single one,” Drake says.

The damage from multiple concussions can be irreversible.

“Repeated concussions can be quite serious and even lethal,” says Air Force Maj. Gerald Grant, a neurosurgeon who treated troops in Iraq.

The Brain Injury Center is urging the military to track the number of concussions troops suffer. A handful of military bases use the screening procedures developed by the center, but the Pentagon has declined to mandate the survey.

Pentagon health official Michael Kilpatrick questioned the accuracy of the screening and whether soldiers even remember the information.

“Most people, when they get knocked out, don’t really know it,” he says.

Military researchers say the two-question survey has proved highly accurate, however.

“I think they’re afraid,” Drake says of the Pentagon’s decision not to screen for concussions. “The sheer numbers are overwhelming. This is a worrisome thing. It’s like opening a can of worms.”

The Pentagon is developing a simple mental exam that medics can use on troops who may have suffered a brain injury.

If the test shows evidence of a mild concussion, the soldier could be kept from combat until the injury heals. Kilpatrick says this test could be used in Iraq within a few months.

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