Getting MTBI diagnosed sooner for better medical outcomes

I’ve been reading more this article: Mild traumatic brain injury in persons with multiple trauma: the problem of delayed diagnosis and I’ve been thinking about why MTBI tends to be overlooked by doctors treating folks with multiple injuries (multi-trauma).  I’ve also been thinking about what benefits might come from diagnosing a mild traumatic brain injury along with other injuries.

I hear it time and time again – from people who read this blog, to people who post on forums, to people who post to comments on websites about mild traumatic brain injury – they got hurt, but the doctors didn’t pay any attention to the TBI issues they were having. This is especially true of veterans who return with a host of issues, with their physical injuries taking precedence.

Obviously, it’s easier to assess and understand physical injuries like broken bones and torn muscles. You can see them, you can measure them, you can tell when they’re healing and measure how well they’re being repaired. But the treatment of these injuries is just the first part, and long-term it seems to me that diagnosis and treatment of any brain-related issues goes hand-in-hand with the treatment of bodily injury.

Because one of the keys to a good recovery is compliance with doctors’ orders. And compliance can depend on a number of things

  • first of all, understanding what the doctor(s) said,
  • secondly, understanding the need for following instructions, and
  • thirdly, having the capacity for following those orders independently over the long term.

If the brain has been injured, it undermines you in at least three ways:

  • First of all, it can make it hard to understand what the doctor(s) said, and (perhaps worse) it can make it hard to know that you didn’t understand. You can’t very well ask for clarification, if you don’t realize you need it. And when you have TBI issues around organizing your thoughts and making yourself understood, it complicates that very critical first step of comprehending what your doctor is telling you about what’s wrong, what you need to do, and what you can (or cannot) expect to happen as a result of your treatment.
  • Secondly, TBI can undermine your ability to understand the need for following instructions. If you don’t understand why you need to follow the doctor’s orders, the chance of motivation is a whole lot less than when you know why you should do what they’ve told you to. Compliance with doctor’s orders is notoriously difficult, and a lot of people just don’t do it, even when they do understand everything that’s been said to them. Take away that ease of understanding, and you’re further complicating an already challenging situation.
  • Thirdly, TBI can reduce your capacity for following those orders independently over the long term. This can be cognitive or energetic. If you’ve got big problems with fatigue and confusion and organizing your thoughts, and your entire life becomes a trial, day in and day out, and you have your hands full, just doing the stuff you’re familiar with, what are the chances of you going above and beyond to take on extra-ordinary activities to further your healing? The issues you have at the outset may continue unabated — even worsened — over time. And even if you start out fully compliant, if you don’t have the ability to sustain your efforts, your long-term recovery can be dramatically impacted. For too many TBI survivors, life can be so draining and confusing that even the most basic of activities leave them exhausted and depleted, frustrated and agitated, and them have no energy left to go above and beyond. So, long-term maintenance — or choices for extended recovery — can fall prey to that dynamic.

Personally, I’d like to see doctors be better educated about TBI in general — especially because of these issues which can directly impact not only quality of care but quality of outcomes. Improving outcomes is everyone’s desire, so why not address these issues from the get-go, and help patients gain a better understanding of their total situation, so they can take appropriate steps to offset the effects of a brain injury?

Part of the problem, that I can see, is a dearth of medical knowledge about mild traumatic brain injury. It’s not difficult to find research on severe or even moderate brain injury, especially where there was some external injury. That’s quantifiable, it’s measurable, and it graphs well. You can track it. With mild TBI and/or closed head injury, when results don’t show up on the CT scan or other imaging/diagnostic mechanism, you’ve got a conundrum. And when the doctor in question doesn’t have the perspective of pre-morbid (before the injury) behaviors and experiences, how can they actually tell that something has happened that is out of the ordinary?

Medicine as we now know it isn’t particularly well suited to recognizing and addressing mTBI, and in failing to do so, the quality of care — the possibility of quality of care — can be pretty strongly diminished.

Which is a shame. Because nobody wants to pour all their time and energy down a gaping black hole. But by ignoring mild traumatic brain injury in multi-trauma situations, by the force of sheer ignorance, that’s exactly what people are helping to make possible.

So, what can be done about this?

  • Well, education helps, for starters. An understanding of the actual impact of mild traumatic brain injury on cognition (I’m not talking about IQ, which is a completely separate issue), mood, behavior, and willingness to engage with the world, may help.
  • Also, making education a priority not only for doctors but also patients is a good step. Making sure patients and their caregivers understand that certain things may be happening — confusion, depression, irritability, anxiety, agitation, disrupted sleep, and a whole lot of other things that tend to get chalked up to psychological states — may help ease some of the uncertainty and agitation that often complicates the situation, and makes a tough spot even worse.
  • Knowing what you can do about these symptoms can also help. It gives you a greater sense of control and hope. Initially, rest is critical. Being smart about taking it easy and having good medical help is also good. And understanding that rest is not a punishment, but an important part of recovery, can also be helpful.
  • For physicians, it may be a challenge to not have a pharmaceutical solution for concussion/mtbi, but this just highlights the importance of addressing patient mtbi issues — you can’t give them a pill to fix it, you need to rely on their cooperation and compliance to improve outcomes. And that means addressing their brain injury issues in a constructive and supportive way. This may be a departure from how things are done for many, but I really feel it’s worth the effort.

One blog post isn’t likely to change much, I realize, but if one person in medicine reads this and takes a slightly different approach that factors in TBI when treating multi-trauma, so much the better.

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