U.S. service members are far too familiar with the topics of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Blast-related brain injuries have been called the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as up to a fifth of all the service members who were deployed to the countries came home with concussions. PTSD might as well be a signature injury of every war. While physical injuries are common, the mental injuries appear to be just as prevalent.
However, diagnosing these mental conditions isn’t easy. The vast majority of all traumatic brain injuries are diagnosed based almost entirely on subjective criteria, and PTSD has even less objective testing methods available. This is especially complicated considering many of the symptoms of the injuries are similar. But, a new study from the journal JAMA Psychiatry has shed some insight into the connection between the two conditions.
According to the study, published on Wednesday, Marines who suffered mild traumatic brain injuries while deployed were roughly twice as likely to get PTSD. Of course, this can be partially explained by the fact that bomb blasts, the most common cause of brain injuries in the armed services, are psychologically traumatizing as well as physically harmful. However, the researchers from the Veterans Affairs Center of Excellence for Stress and Mental Health in San Diego believe there is more to the story.
Dr. Dewleen Baker, co-author of the study, says structural changes in the brain following a head injury are also likely to increase the likelihood of developing PTSD and simultaneously decrease the chance for recovery.
The study followed 1,648 Marines from four battalions in Southern California as they were deployed to the wars abroad and returned between 2008 and 2012. Every Marine was assessed for PTSD and other mental health issues a month before deployment, and then again three to six months after returning. Roughly 20% of those tested – 327 Marines in total, reported having suffered at least one traumatic brain injury during their deployment.
Unsurprisingly, the Los Angeles Times reports Marines who were already suffering from PTSD when they were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and those who saw intense combat, were at the highest risk for testing positive for PTSD upon their return home. Brain injuries compounded the issue, raising the risk from 23% to 34%.
Meanwhile, Marines who were deployed without any pre-existing mental health problems and saw little combat were at the lowest risk for developing PTSD, with or without a brain injury.