Soldiers Suffering from War: PTSD or Brain Injury?

An extensive study by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research concludes that PTSD and depression play a larger role than previously acknowledged in symptoms suffered by soldiers returning from war.

An extensive study by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research reported on PsycPort has come to the conclusion that post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and depression play a larger role than previously acknowledged in symptoms suffered by soldiers returning from war.

It is very difficult to separate which symptoms are caused by physical damage such as head injuries, and which are caused by the intense stress of war, and, one could argue, totally natural reactions to it. Personally I would find a seamless psychological adjustment to an imminent threat of being killed and to killing others a bit worrying!

But this study focuses on the overlap between symptoms of psychological distress and brain injury. PsycPort reports that “The new study, based on a survey of 2,500 soldiers, found that brain injury made traumatic stress more likely. The study tied only one symptom — headaches — specifically to brain injury.”

It may be the case that concussions make stress worse by damaging certain brain areas, the ones which cope with fear. The message, however, is that however the symptoms arose, soldiers do not need to feel sentenced to life with a permanent brain injury. There are effective psychological treatments for PTSD.

I find it interesting that actual damage to the brain seems to create the same effects as trauma in other circumstances, suggesting possibly that non-physical traumatic effects may cause actual changes in the brain similar to those caused by injury. The positive and exciting thing is that through psychological treatments the sufferer’s symptoms become less severe, or disappear altogether. The jury is out as to whether this is more proof of the plasticity of the brain, whether the damage actually reverses, or whether, and how, the brain works around those changes.

These are exciting speculations, but the most important thing is to ensure that soldiers are monitored and given the care that they need on returning from war.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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