Why are concussions different for veterans?


Concussions are common injuries for military personnel, and the ramifications can be long-lasting and serious if they’re left untreated.

When we hear the word “concussion,” who do we think of? For many, it’s professional athletes such as football or soccer players. But another subset of people are likely to suffer the effects of concussions without the fanfare – our military veterans.

When service men and women suffer concussions, it’s a whole different ballgame from concussions in sports. Concussions are common injuries for military personnel, and the ramifications can be long-lasting and serious if they’re left untreated.

In honor of Veterans Day, let’s take a closer look at why it’s crucial for military personnel, veterans, and their families to understand the importance of proper concussion care and rehabilitation.

Treating concussions in our military veterans

For more than a decade, we’ve seen service men and women return home from the Middle East conflicts, many after multiple tours of combat. These veterans are dealing with the challenges of resuming their lives at home while at the same time suffering from the effects of concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

There’s a different set of problems associated with concussions that are acquired in a combat situation. Just think about how they’re getting these brain injuries: they haven’t had any sleep, they’re in a state of very high tension, they don’t know what’s going to happen, and people are actually getting killed around them.

Their brains are already under a tremendous amount of stress and when they get a concussion on top of it, the ramifications are more serious than when you’re well-fed, you’re getting your rest, and you’re at home in your regular environment – it’s often harder to get over. The disruption to brain function often takes a longer amount of time to heal, and that can be frustrating. For some veterans, it can be easy to become depressed and anxious because they feel like they aren’t getting better, which makes the symptoms worse for them.

Tackling this problem has been a challenge. Early on in the Middle East conflicts, concussions weren’t being diagnosed properly. Veterans were coming back with problems related to their concussions and weren’t being adequately treated for them.

However, the military realized the long-term problems that were arising because of concussions. Military commanders and health care providers have worked very hard to try to change their approach to treatment. The military acknowledges, just like sports does, that when concussions happen they must be taken seriously. It’s important to take time to make sure the warrior or veteran is really functioning well before putting them back into combat or expecting them to resume their normal lives.

Symptoms, barriers, and treatment

One of the reasons our military veterans face these challenges is that there’s a tremendous amount of overlap between symptoms related to stress and symptoms related to mild TBI, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety

Sometimes symptoms are attributed to mental health diagnoses and sometimes they’re attributed to brain injury. Sorting that out can be difficult, especially when significant time has passed since the injury.

A big challenge for soldiers and veterans is the stigma about getting help if you’re having problems. Even with all of the support to get help for symptoms from the military and the Dallas VA Medical Center, there’s still kind of this, “I’m going to gut it out, I’m a soldier, I can take care of this stuff.” That part of military culture can make it hard for veterans with TBI and concussions to feel comfortable seeking help.

Recovery for someone who received a concussion during combat is particularly challenging. Military personnel are also dealing with physical injuries as well as the emotional impacts of environmental stress and being away from home. Many of our servicemen and women serve multiple tours, going back and forth overseas, leaving their friends and family behind. It puts a lot of stress on them and their families. There are many parts of their brains that have to heal before they can more easily interact with their surroundings and others.

It’s vital to step back and take an objective look at what’s going on. When veterans who suffer concussions come home, there’s often a little honeymoon period where it seems everything is going well because they’re so happy to be home. But after the glow of homecoming fades, their concussion symptoms become more apparent, and the veterans and their families aren’t quite aware of what’s going on.

Family members must be supportive and encourage their veterans to seek concussion care. Families should keep an eye out for these classic concussion symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Cognitive issues, such as forgetting things
  • Problems sleeping
  • Inability to multitask

Concussion treatment for veterans

It’s important to understand that veterans can get better even when they have a concussion with persistent symptoms. Recovering from a concussion takes time.

We use a variety of methods to help concussion patients recover, including medication, counseling, brain training, and working on cognitive rehabilitation. There also are other things that can be very helpful like cognitive strategies for organization at home and at work.

These treatments sound very simple, but when a person is struggling with their brain function and having emotional responses to those difficulties, it’s hard to think your way through it all. It’s frustrating. Patients often say, “I never had to keep notes before. I never had to write down my schedule – I always knew where I was supposed to go, and now I can’t remember anything.”

Concussion patients can remember things – they just need to use strategies that help them keep track of things. That’s disheartening to a lot of people, especially to our military veterans, because they’re used to always having the information they need at their fingertips. But it’s important not to lose heart – there is help and hope for military veterans to recover from concussions suffered in combat.

Do you know a veteran who could benefit from meeting with a physician about concussion symptoms? We’re honored to serve our veterans. Encourage your loved one to request an appointment online.