US soldiers from lie exhausted on the floor at an operation post after completing a mission to search for weapons caches in the Alaugal valley in Nishagam,Afghanistan in 2009.
US soldiers from lie exhausted on the floor at an operation post after completing a mission to search for weapons caches in the Alaugal valley in Nishagam,Afghanistan in 2009.

Thousands of war veterans suffering alone with undiagnosed brain trauma, research suggests

Veterans downplay and hide their pain from family and friends as they struggle to understand their symptoms, report suggests

Siobhan Fenton
Tuesday 29 December 2015 18:05
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Tens of thousands of wounded war veterans return from service with undiagnosed brain injuries which they attempt to conceal by withdrawing emotionally from their loved ones, new research has suggested.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University analysed a cohort of American combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They uncovered tens of thousands of undiagnosed and untreated brain injuries amongst the participants which had been incurred during combat but had failed to be identified by military medical staff.

The resulting physical pain and mental distress upon return to civilian life had a profound impact on the veterans, the scientists suggest. Higher risk of memory loss, cognitive struggles, mood disorders, migraine headaches, addiction, insomnia and suicide were amongst the risk factors associated with undiagnosed brain trauma.

Researchers reported that the veterans subsequently responded by hiding the extent of their symptoms from their friends and family by both playing down their wounds and deciding to withdraw from close relationships.

The study noted a division between those who suffered injuries before 2010, and those who incurred them afterwards. The results reportedly indicated that the military had experienced a positive cultural shift around this time relating to the mental health and emotional wellbeing of their soldiers. Those who were injured after 2010 were much more likely to be diagnosed and treated.

However, the researchers reported that progress was still needed and that many veterans said that they were passed between different branches of the military’s medical infrastructure without receiving appropriate treatment.

Researcher Rachel P. Chase told armed forces media outlet Military: “One of the vets in the study told us what it was like. You go to one clinic and they tell you, ‘Oh that’s TBI’ [Traumatic Brain Injury]. Then you go to another clinic and they say, ‘No, that’s PTSD’ [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Back and forth and you’re still untreated.”

She said that she hopes the research will help facilitate greater understanding and communication between veterans and medical workers, whilst involving families who might be confused about their relative’s altered behaviour: “For health providers, our study gives you a way to talk about the problem with the family, to show them that this isn’t unusual and that there is hope for the veterans.”

According to the latest figures from the US census, there are currently 21.8 million veterans in the country.

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