“The thing that we struggle with as clinicians is what is the effect on veterans if they have PTSD but also are reporting that they were exposed to a blast,” said Polusny.
The fear, she said, was that the combination could be more devastating than PTSD alone, but the study found otherwise. Essentially, she said, the symptoms of veterans with mild head injuries were no worse than those of anyone else with post-traumatic stress.
It’s believed to be the first study to show “that a history of concussion/mild traumatic brain injury alone does not contribute to long-term impairments,” the authors reported. In effect, that’s good news for the troops, Polusny said, because it means their symptoms can be treated.
“What’s important is if a veteran is having difficulties in adjusting back to civilian life,” she said, it’s probably not because of mild head injury. “If what’s driving these post-deployment problems is really PTSD, then we ought to treat the cause of it.”
As part of the study, Polusny asked the soldiers to answer questionnaires while still in Iraq, shortly before they finished their 16-month tour of duty in 2007. Then she asked the same questions a year later.
Curiously, only 9 percent reported a brain injury while still serving in Iraq; a year later, 22 percent said they’d had a brain injury during combat. “We’re curious about that too,” Polusny said. She speculated that some soldiers may have been reluctant to admit to injuries while still “in country,” but felt freer to talk about them once they were home.