Diagnosis of mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI)

Author: This material has been adapted from information originally written for the VA by E. Lanier Summerall, MD, MPH.

March is Brian Injury Awareness month and with that in mind we focused this week’s blog on how traumatic brain injury (TBI) is diagnosed.

First, let’s discuss the definition of traumatic brain injury (TBI).  TBI is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an injury caused by a blow or a jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain.  TBI is frequently referred to as the silent epidemic due to the problems that result from it (e.g., impaired memory) which often are not visible.

Those individuals with moderate and severe traumatic brain injuries often (though not always) have obvious evidence and symptoms of their injury. However, those who have experienced mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) can be more difficult to diagnose.  The briefness of the initial change of a person’s consciousness after their initial injury may cause the injury to go unnoticed.  If a mTBI takes place during a chaotic event, such as combat, the injury is easy to ignore.  The individual may delay contacting their health care professional for some time after the original injury took place and unfortunately when this happens the details can often be hard to pin down.  This presents unique challenges for health care providers who diagnose mTBI.

The diagnosis of a mTBI can be associated with post-concussive symptoms and other co-existing conditions like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  With no reliable screening instruments available an interview with a skilled clinician is still the only accurate way to receive a diagnosis.  (You may have heard about a screening tool that the VA is using.  This tool is intended to initiate the evaluation process, not to definitively make a diagnosis.)

Individuals diagnosed with a TBI or mTBI often display some symptoms of PTSD on screening tests.  While not all of these individuals actually have PTSD, many OEF/OIF Warriors and Veterans who have experienced a mild traumatic brain injury also have PTSD related to their combat experience.

Are you looking for more information and resources in regards to mTBI?  Please check out the mild Traumatic Brain Injury section of our eLibrary!