TBI: By the Numbers
March 16, 2018 | 3-minute read
Brian was drawn to military service after working as a volunteer firefighter during recovery from the Sept. 11 attacks. Three months after returning home from his deployment in Iraq, he went back to school.
Sitting in a classroom was a giant culture shock after serving in Baghdad. But more than that, the U.S. Army Veteran found himself suddenly struggling to memorize things. He’d test himself, reading one sentence and then the next. By the time he finished the second, he couldn’t remember the first.
“I could not remember the most basic stuff,” Brian recalls. “It was frightening. I started kind of asking around, like ‘Did I forget how to study? Is it me? Did four years being out of school just really wipe my brain?’ And at some point, someone said, ‘Do you know what a TBI is?’”
It turns out, Brian did have a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from being exposed to blasts during his service. His eyes hurt. His head hurt. He had trouble falling asleep. He was angry — all the time. But Brian was not alone.
Here are some of the numbers that help tell the story of traumatic brain injuries in the military:
The average human brain weighs just 3 pounds, but it regulates so much of who we are — how we think, how we act, how we feel. When the brain is injured, it can cause disruptions in the body as well as effects on behavior and thinking skills. Those who experience a TBI can be at an increased risk for mental health conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder and depression.
From 2000 through September 2017, the Department of Defense (DoD) reports that 375,230 cases of TBI had been diagnosed among U.S. forces around the world. That includes 220,014 cases among Army personnel.
The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center estimate that 22 percent of all casualties from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted from brain injuries. By contrast, 12 percent of Vietnam War-related casualties resulted from brain injuries.
Among the civilian population, about 80 percent of traumatic brain injuries are mild cases, resulting from incidents such as motor vehicle accidents, falls, assaults, or being struck by an object. Symptoms of a mild TBI can include headaches, dizziness, insomnia, impaired memory, or a lower tolerance for noise and light. Most people with a mild TBI will return to normal within three to six months.
Some people may experience symptoms for as long as 18 to 24 months after initially sustaining a TBI. In particular, the exposure to blasts — like those Brian faced — can produce distinct and longer-lasting symptoms.
“Nothing hit my head physically,” says Tom, an Army Veteran who has a TBI. “But the shock waves didn’t stop at one side of my Kevlar and go to the other. It shook my brain around. And I’m not a brain doctor, but if you move it a little bit, you can really mess some things up.”
Other common causes of TBI in the military include motor vehicle accidents and gunshot wounds.