Helping soldiers who might be suffering from the effects of a brain injury or from post-traumatic stress disorder can sometimes mean finding the root cause of their symptoms, military health experts told medical students at Georgia Regents University on Tuesday.
The experts from Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center spoke to students at Medical College of Georgia at GRU as part of a weeklong series of talks on military and veterans issues. It is part of a national effort by the Association of American Medical Colleges in support of the Joining Forces initiative begun by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden.
When it comes to assessing whether someone is suffering PTSD, you also have to take into account that there is a lot of adjustment for military who are returning from deployment, said Dr. Michael Perry, a clinical psychologist at Eisenhower.
“There may be some anxiety associated with that, some repercussions,” he said. “Coming back home, adjusting back to society, really re-establishing for yourself what’s safe and what’s not safe. Reconnecting those relationships. Because someone might be stressed out about being back home doesn’t necessarily mean PTSD.”
And PTSD shares many symptoms with another common problem, post-concussive syndrome. Studies have estimated 12-15 percent of the Army has suffered a concussion, said Dr. Scott Mooney, a neuropsychologist at Eisenhower. Most uncomplicated traumatic brain injuries resolve within three months but those with more complicated cases can have a range of symptoms from insomnia to headache to irritability and memory loss.
“So is that PTSD or is that post-concussive syndrome?” Perry asked. “Look at anxiety in certain situations, sleep disturbances, etc. What’s driving those symptoms? We need to really understand that.”
It can further be complicated by pain and many patients also suffer from chronic pain.
“Pain is a big deal,” Perry said. “Because we know if you’re going through some type of psychological problem, then you’re more susceptible to pain. On the flip side, if you’re having pain, you’re more susceptible to some type of psychological problem.”
Getting the patient to recognize what is going on and talking them through what it is and what to expect is a big part of dealing with it, Mooney said.
“What it boils down to is education,” he said, and getting the patient to “buy in” to the treatment plan.
What happens down the road is less clear and one research study suggested that three genuine concussions puts people at five times greater risk of dementia, Mooney said.
“It’s certainly a risk factor,” he said. “We don’t really know the full story right now of what is going to happen” to those patients.