Military Looks to Dispel Myths, Advance Treatment for Brain Injuries
By Mark Heeter
Special to American Forces Press Service
SCHWEINFURT, Germany, March 11, 2009 Get a good night's sleep.
That is seemingly simple, yet sometimes complicated, advice from medical professionals as part of a reintegration program for redeploying soldiers who might have suffered traumatic brain injuries, the commander of Europe Regional Medical Command said.
“When you come back from Afghanistan or Iraq, part of the screening program process is [confirming] if you had multiple concussive injuries downrange,” Army Brig. Gen. Keith W. Gallagher said.
The objective of the reintegration is to “get you to where you can function and go to sleep at night,” he said. “Sleep is very important for the healing process.”
And, contrary to popular misconceptions, these physical injuries will heal, said Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree K. Sutton, special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs for psychological health and traumatic brain injury.
“One of the myths out there is that mild traumatic brain injuries, or concussions, means that somehow your brain is broken forever. No, it's an injury,” said Sutton, who also is director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
“If you have some long-term, later symptoms that pop up, that's probably post-traumatic stress. That's probably not related to the concussion,” she explained.
Sutton and Gallagher were joined for a recent meeting and video teleconference at the Schweinfurt Army Health Clinic here by Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Rhonda Cornum, director of comprehensive soldier fitness for the Army’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff.
“We need to address [brain injury and psychological health] in a holistic fashion,” said Cornum, who aims to see more components of soldiers' total health come into focus through prevention and training across the Army culture.
“[Recruits] come in, and we do the [physical training] test twice a year. We do PT training every week. And so we have a program to make people stronger, but we have not had a program to worry about psychological, spiritual, emotional, family,” she said.
“The [Defense] Department has made an enormous investment in both better understanding concussions, mild TBI, and in psychological health,” said Sutton, noting that doctors' and researchers' recent discoveries about the brain make this an “exciting” time to be working on injured servicemembers' behalf.
“When I was in medical school, in the ’80s, we were taught what was then thought to be true: … you're born into this world with all the brain cells you're ever going to get,” Sutton said, quickly dispelling those old misconceptions with words like neurogenesis and neuroplasticity that define the brain's ability to recover and adapt.
Soldiers -- or anyone -- who have likely suffered a TBI should seek help with their care providers, Gallagher stressed.
“If they're having problems, they can go see their primary care provider. If they're still having problems, go see them again,” he said.
“But don't stay awake watching movies because you can't go to sleep, and then wonder why you're getting up late for work. That's not helpful,” Cornum advised.
It's not just about that good night's sleep.
(Mark Heeter works at the U.S. Army Garrison Schweinfurt public affairs office.)