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News | Nov. 14, 2008

Arctic Medics treat TBI victims

By Senior Airman Amber Wescott 3rd Wing Public Affairs

The 3rd Medical Group here currently houses the Air Force's only Traumatic Brain Injury Center where they've seen and treated more than 1,500 patients and typically see more patients than the average practitioner. 

TBI - as it is more commonly known - has become known as one of the most significant public health problems in the United States, and has quickly become identified as the "signature injury" of the Global War on Terrorism. Between October 2001 and October 2007, there were approximately 1.64 million U.S. troops who were deployed and, of those, approximately 320,000 troops experienced a probable TBI during their tour. 

According to the National Center For Injury Prevention and Control, "TBI is caused by a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain." 

"Mild cases consist of a brief change in mental status or consciousness to 'severe' to consist of an extended period of unconsciousness or amnesia after the injury," said Maj. Peter Osterbauer, 3rd Medical Group chief of Neurology Services. 

Some common symptoms to look for in mild TBI are double or blurry vision, fatigue, reduced concentration, memory complaints, irritability, balance and coordination problems and ringing in the ears. 

"Recoveries vary from person to person, although the chances for a quick recovery for mild TBI are relatively fair -- 80 - 85 percent will fully recover over three to six months," said Major Osterbauer. "Of the remaining 15 - 20 percent, some will recover over the course of a year or sometimes two. Most make a full recovery, but some make only a partial recovery, and some, unfortunately, make little or no improvement." 

"However, it is key to remember that not everyone who bumps their head or is exposed to a bomb blast has a Traumatic Brain Injury," he added. 

Research is still being conducted, though it is still in the early stages. Researchers have a general idea of what's on a macroscopic level, but there is still much to be known about the microscopic and biochemical changes that occur. 

Major Osterbauer said it's important to know that "there is still no magic pill that can cure a traumatic brain injury but what we can do is provide the body the support it needs while it recovers. This can include medications for symptomatic relief, nutritional support, counseling, or most often a combination of these; also education and reassurance play a big role." 

"Treatment is largely dependent on the severity of the TBI," said Col. Kevin Blakley, 3rd Medical Operations Squadron commander. "In mild TBI, which constitutes the majority of cases, supportive patient education and a type of therapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy are primary treatment methods for those whose symptoms do not spontaneously resolve." 

Although recovery time can be very spontaneous, it can range from days to weeks for the majority of victims. 

Medical officials stress that it's very important that family members take comfort in knowing that in most cases the symptoms will improve. Support is the most important factor in helping the injured family member in making a recovery, though aside from being supportive, it helps if they educate themselves about TBI and are aware of the resources available to help the victims. 

"For more severe cases of TBI the family involvement should be much more comprehensive," said Colonel Blakely. "If the family is looking for support there are numerous support groups for families; locally the Alaska Brain injury Network is a good resource." 

Additional information on TBI is available at www.braininjury.net and www.cdc.gov/ncipc/tbi/TBI.htm or by calling (800) 232-4636.

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