By Rick Maze
The Army Times
Sunday 04 November 2007
About 6 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans seeking treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, according to preliminary data released Friday.
A VA mandatory screening program that took effect in April has looked at 61,285 veterans of the wars. Of those, 19.2 percent were identified on the screening questionnaire as potentially suffering from traumatic brain injuries and were referred for more tests.
While evaluation continues, VA spokeswoman Alison Aikele said officials believe, based on a smaller sample, that the final result about 5.8 percent will be diagnosed with TBI.
Aikele said it is too soon to draw any conclusions from the screening because the program has been under way for only a few months. Until there is more screening and evaluation, VA officials do not want to jump to any sweeping conclusions about brain injuries, she said.
"We did not really know what to expect," she said when asked if the number of confirmed TBI cases matched VA's expectations.
However, the 5.8 percent figure appears low. The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, a joint Pentagon-VA research effort, 14 percent to 20 percent of troops in previous conflicts have had traumatic brain injuries. The Center says there are reasons to expect a higher percentage among troops in the current conflicts because improved body armor has made them more likely to survive injuries that would have been fatal in previous wars, and because of the prevalence of roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades to attack U.S. forces. The blasts from such weapons can easily cause concussive brain injuries.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, said it is clear that traumatic brain injury will be a major issue facing VA in the future.
"Traumatic brain injury is the signature wound for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Akaka said. "I commend the Department of Veterans Affairs for stepping up their TBI screening for service members who have returned from combat."
Akaka said he is working with other lawmakers to ensure VA has money to treat those diagnosed with TBI.
Aikele said it is not yet clear how much more help the VA will need. Mild cases of TBI can "work themselves out" in about 18 months without exhaustive treatment, she said.
But more serious forms of TBI can result in a lifelong disability.
TBI can be difficult to diagnosis because many of its symptoms are not necessarily considered inappropriate or unexpected in a veteran returning from combat.
Symptoms include increased anxiety, depression, irritability, difficulty communicating and behavior changes. More serious symptoms include memory loss, balance problems, numbness, slurred speech and an inability to concentrate.