New Research Suggests Physical Brain Injury as A Cause of Psychological Trauma and PTSD
In military, law enforcement, industrial and disaster management contexts, traumatic stress symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorders have usually been regarded as a psychiatric problem. New research suggests that at least in some cases, such psychological dysfunction results from physical injuries to the brain itself.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “trauma” is often thought of as physical injuries. Psychological trauma is an emotionally painful, shocking, stressful and sometimes life-threatening experience. It may or may not involve physical injuries, and can result from witnessing distressing events. Examples include a natural disaster, industrial accidents and terrorism. Disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and floods can claim lives, destroy homes or whole communities and cause serious physical and psychological injuries. Psychological trauma can also be caused by acts of violence.
Reactions (responses) to trauma can be immediate or delayed. Reactions to trauma differ in severity and cover a wide range of behaviors and responses. People with existing mental health problems, past traumatic experiences, and/or limited family and social supports may be more reactive (less resilient) to psychological trauma.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a real and serious illness. PTSD can occur after living through or seeing a dangerous event, such as a war, a hurricane, tornado, violent crime, serious or fatal injuries or a bad accident. PTSD makes one continue to experience stress and fear even after the danger is over and the event is in the past. It can affect one’s life and work performance, as well as cognitive and emotional functioning.
Health care providers have long assumed that the link between these experiences and the symptoms of PTSD is a cognitive, emotional and psychological one. However, a recent study published in The Lancet Neurology has expanded our knowledge of brain tissue damage linked to psychological trauma manifestations. The study linked observed brain tissue damage to blast injuries, further connecting PTSD to physical changes in the brain and not solely a psychological response to exposure to battle.
Blast Wave Phenomena
According to the report: the “blast wave” phenomena identifies that an explosion is composed of a pulse of compressed air moving in all directions faster than the speed of sound and arriving even before the wind from the blast. Apparently this wave affects brain tissue as it moves through a helmet and the skull. The blast wave also affects blood vessels by compressing the sternum and sending shock waves through the body’s blood vessels into the brain. Researchers found scarring in specific locations in the cerebral cortex associated with emotional and cognitive functioning. Those studied all had symptoms of PTSD, suggesting that a physical injury to the brain led to or exacerbated their psychological problems.
This study may offer explanations for the observed cognitive and emotional PTSD related problems. Most significantly, it offers preliminary support for the existence of a link between PTSD and structural changes to the brain caused by blast shock exposure.
Rethinking Prevention and Recovery Measures
Better understanding of the mechanisms of how such injuries occur and/or furthering our understanding of PTSD – including its symptoms and treatment options – could expand the nature and extension of treatment interventions in the coming years. We need to pay attention to these new findings as we work to mitigate such psychological trauma and assist our workers and others who are coping with and recovering from such psychological trauma.