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September 11 2007 - Thousands of GIs Cope With Brain Damage

The war in Iraq is not over, but one legacy of the war is already sweeping across America: an epidemic of brain-damaged soldiers.

Thousands of troops have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, or TBI. These blast-caused head injuries are so different from the ones doctors are used to seeing from falls and car crashes that treating them is as much faith as it is science.

"I've been in the field for 20-plus years dealing with TBI. I have a very experienced staff. And they're saying to me, 'We're seeing things we've never seen before,'" said Sandy Schneider, director of Vanderbilt University's brain injury rehabilitation program.

Doctors also are realizing that symptoms overlap with post-traumatic stress disorder, and that both must be treated. Odd as it may seem, brain injury can protect against PTSD by blurring awareness of what happened.

But as memory improves, emotional problems can emerge: One of the first "graduates" of Vanderbilt's program committed suicide three weeks later.

"Of all the ones here, he would not have been the one we would have thought," Schneider said. "They called him the Michelangelo of Fort Campbell" — a guy who planned to go to art school.

As more troops return from the war, brain injuries are a growing burden — for them, for the few programs to treat them, and for taxpayers who pay for their care and disability if they cannot hold jobs.

Most TBIs are mild, and most of these patients recover within a year. But one-fifth of the troops with these mild injuries will have prolonged or lifelong symptoms and need continuing care, the military estimates. Nearly all of the moderate and severe ones will, too.

Though the full number of those suffering from TBI is still unknown, the problem is straining the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Until now, "they were dealing with a cohort of aging veterans with diabetes, heart disease, lung disease," said Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and a VA adviser.

Now, these young, brain-injured troops need highly specialized care, and how much it will help long-term is unknown, he said.

People with TBI have frequent headaches, dizziness, and trouble concentrating and sleeping. They may be depressed, irritable and confused, and easily provoked or distracted. Speech or vision also can be impaired.

Some sufferers have been misdiagnosed with personality disorders. Others have lost jobs because of unrecognized and untreated symptoms.

"It's the so-called invisible injury. It's where a troop takes 10 times the normal time to pack his rucksack ... a complicated injury to the most complicated part of the body," said Dr. Alisa Gean, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, San Francisco.

Diagnosing it is imprecise — damage rarely shows up on CAT scans or other tests.

Treating it is even more difficult. Lacking a cure, doctors focus on symptoms — headaches, anxiety, vision problems, etc. But they lack good treatments for some of these, too, and are considering some experimental approaches being pushed by private companies with little proof they work.

Many troops get no care at all. Some are sent back to fight with their brain injuries undetected, especially if they had no obvious wounds.

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