IEDs & TBI: Protecting Soldiers from Brain Injury

Brain injuries aren’t only common on the football field — they are also a serious problem on the battle field. This is in large part due to the increased use of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. IEDs have killed more troops overseas than any other kind of attack. They also have a lingering impact on survivors. Of those combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, 20% have some level of traumatic brain injury caused by explosive blasts. New, wearable technology is hoping to change that. But first, a little background.

The problem with explosions is that unless you’re bleeding or clearly injured, you have no idea whether or not you have been hurt. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Scott Featherman  a scout platoon leader with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, shared his experience with IEDs:

I was hit several times when I was over, and you have no clue if you’re hurt. You get back up, say “Am I good? Looks good.” And then you go back out.

As you’ve likely heard before (especially on this blog), pushing yourself too soon after a head injury can make things significantly worse — especially if you sustain another one in close succession. While there are measurements out there to determine whether a person has sustained a concussion, those are for common head injuries — sports, car accidents, etc. But those measurements won’t work for brain injuries caused by explosives. Here’s where it gets a little complicated. Researchers understand the physics of brain injuries caused by hits to the head. The physics of brain injuries caused explosives are not as clear. In other words, we know that explosive blasts cause brain injuries, but we don’t know exactly why or how. So how can we measure something when we aren’t even sure what to measure?

One organization is trying to find out: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA. They have created a blast gauge, a thumb-sized device that a soldier can wear in the field. If the soldier is involved in an explosion, the device will measure the impact of the blast, and provide early warning signs of injury. Here’s how it works, according to The Daily Beast:

When a soldier is hit by an IED, the gauge records the event. Depending on the severity of the blast, a green, yellow or red light comes on, and once the soldier is back at their fire base or outpost, each gauge is plugged into a laptop via USB cable. The data available for download includes the detailed waveform of the blast overpressure with sufficient granularity to tie specific PSI (pounds per square inch, the unit of measurement of overpressure) levels to injuries.

Finally, soldiers like Featherman have an objective indicator of a potential injury, a measuring tool fueled by electricity and not adrenaline, something to tell them if they were “too close.”

Pretty cool, huh? While this gauge doesn’t replace medical treatment, it is incredibly helpful during triage. Because the soldier may not remember the blast, this device gives their physician critical information about what happened. The data can also be helpful weeks, months and even years later. Some symptoms of brain injury, such as an inability to control emotions, memory loss or difficulty making decisions, may not appear until well after the injury. Using this data, physicians can determine whether the problem is physical (TBI) or perhaps emotional (PTSD).

How this device impacts the number of soldiers returning with brain injuries is unclear. But we think it’s safe to say this is a step in the right direction.

For more information, you can read the full article on The Daily Beast. Let us know what you think!

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