Link between concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder

Concussions have received a lot of press in recent years as football players and other athletes have gone public with their stories about sports-related head injuries. We are coming to understand the long-term damage that concussions and other head injuries leave behind.

But these injuries are not limited to sports. An estimated quarter million servicemen and women have suffered concussions in combat situations over the past decade of war. Now researchers are learning there’s a link between concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In an episode of “60 Minutes” that aired in May, retired Army Major Ben Richards recounted how he suffered a significant concussion when his vehicle was hit during combat. He said his head hurt and he was nauseated for a week, and he couldn’t see straight. Doctors told Richards he was suffering from PTSD, a diagnosis that would hang over him for four years.

Richards went on to become a professor at West Point, but he found himself blanking out in the middle of class. After four years of blaming himself for not getting better, he learned he was suffering from more than PTSD. He had a significant loss of activity on one side of his brain as a result of his concussion.

Because concussions don’t leave visible scars, they can be a neglected wound. Now with the help of better diagnostic imaging tests, researchers are able to see the physical damage even a relatively mild concussion can cause. More sophisticated brain screenings are revealing physical damage in brains that look normal on conventional imaging tests, like CT scans.

A U.S. Army Special Operations study found PTSD in 12 percent of concussions from blunt trauma, 23 percent from blast trauma and 31 percent of combined blast-blunt trauma. And, in those who were exposed to multiple-blast trauma, PTSD was more likely as concussions increased — 29 percent after two blasts and 34 percent after three blasts.

The bottom line is, any head injury needs to be properly evaluated — whether you have symptoms or not. If you want to learn more, come to the next session of Norton Neuroscience Institute’s Headache School. A neurologist will discuss concussion and headache related to head injuries from sports, accidents and combat on Thursday, Aug. 8, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Marshall Women’s Health & Education Center at Norton Suburban Hospital. To register for this free seminar, call (502) 629-1234

–Jennifer Reynolds