Traumatic axonal injury (TAI) contributes significantly to mortality and morbidity following traumatic brain injury (TBI), but is poorly characterized by conventional imaging techniques. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) may provide better detection as well as insights into the mechanisms of white matter injury. DTI data from 33 patients with moderate-to-severe TBI, acquired at a median of 32 h postinjury, were compared with data from 28 age-matched controls. The global burden of whole brain white matter injury (GB(WMI)) was quantified by measuring the proportion of voxels that lay below a critical fractional anisotropy (FA) threshold, identified from control data. Mechanisms of change in FA maps were explored using an Eigenvalue analysis of the diffusion tensor. When compared with controls, patients showed significantly reduced mean FA (p < 0.001) and increased apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC; p = 0.017). GB(WMI) was significantly greater in patients than in controls (p < 0.01), but did not distinguish patients with obvious white matter lesions seen on structural imaging. It predicted classification of DTI images as head injury with a high degree of accuracy. Eigenvalue analysis showed that reductions in FA were predominantly the result of increases in radial diffusivity (p < 0.001). DTI may help quantify the overall burden of white matter injury in TBI and provide insights into underlying pathophysiology. Eigenvalue analysis suggests that the early imaging changes seen in white matter are consistent with axonal swelling rather than axonal truncation. This technique holds promise for examining disease progression, and may help define therapeutic windows for the treatment of diffuse brain injury.