Survey Finds One in Six Ontario Adults Have Experienced a Traumatic Brain Injury

A new survey finds nearly 17 percent of adults in Ontario report having experienced a traumatic brain injury that left them unconscious for five minutes or required overnight hospitalization, according to a report published in Journal of Neurotrauma.

The rates found in the survey are comparable with rates of substance abuse, cigarette smoking, and psychological distress found in the survey of 1,999 Ontario adults.

“We found that one in six Ontario adults reported a history of TBI,” said Dr. Gabriela Ilie, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow at St. Michael’s Hospital. “That prevalence is higher than previously known. Equally concerning, is the rate of harmful behaviours reported by adults with a history of TBI.”

The study showed that compared to their peers, adults with a history of TBI reported that they were:

  • 2.9 times more likely to have taken opioid pain relievers -such as Percocet, Tylenol-3 or codeine- without a prescription in the past year
  • 2.8 times more likely to have smoked cannabis in the past year
  • Twice as likely to have smoked cigarettes every day in the past year
  • Nearly twice as likely to have described experiencing psychiatric distress – such as depressed mood, anxiety, insomnia, and social dysfunction – in the past four weeks

“Although our data can’t show which came first, it’s possible that those with a history of TBI may be turning to opioids, marijuana and nicotine as coping mechanisms to deal with the lingering effects of their TBI,” said Dr. Ilie. “Of course, the reverse may also be true; someone who uses drugs may be more likely to behave in ways that risk suffering a brain injury.”

The data for the study came from the 2011 cycle of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s monitor, a continuous, cross-sectional telephone survey of Ontario adults.

“Medical practitioners should be aware of the potential association between substance abuse and brain injury,” said Dr. Robert Mann, a senior scientist at CAMH and co-principal investigator of the study. “More research is needed, but it’s possible that part of long-term TBI treatment may one day include screening for substance abuse and mental health problems to help address this issue.”

The researchers say most studies use hospital admission records to estimate the prevalence of brain injury, however this misses individuals who did not seek medical attention. By combining hospital records and self-reporting, Dr. Ilie says this study shows the rate of TBI is higher than previously reported.

Last year, the team of researchers found similar rates of TBI and poor health behavior among Ontario students between Grades 7 and 12.

“We now have data for adults and students from the same year,” said Dr. Ilie. “Our research shows that, young or old, no one is immune from TBI and that substance abuse and psychiatric distress are often connected to brain injuries. Further investigation is needed to better understand TBI and its harmful health behaviours but our findings really reinforce the need for preventive action against TBI in Ontario.”

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