Is a diagnosis of "mild traumatic brain injury" a category mistake?

J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2012 Aug;73(2 Suppl 1):S13-23. doi: 10.1097/TA.0b013e318260604b.


Background: Efforts to produce definitions and diagnostic standards for mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) have a long and complex history. The diagnosis of TBI must be considered in the larger context of neuropsychiatric diagnosis. A major reconceptualization of diagnosis is now underway in which the classical syndrome conceptualization is being discarded. We address the question, what are the implications of this revision of thinking in the specific context of TBI?

Methods: A recent literature on logical structures for neuropsychiatric disorders was reviewed. The symptom pattern of TBI was identified, and a literature survey determined the frequency of these symptom patterns in other disorders and in healthy control populations.

Results: The frequency of symptom endorsement in populations without a history of TBI can be equal to endorsement frequencies in populations with a history of mild TBI. In some studies, the frequency of symptom endorsement in healthy controls having no history of head injury actually exceeded the endorsement rates in a comparison group with a history mild TBI.

Conclusion: The heterogeneity of this clinical population and their clinical presentations, the absence of a unitary etiology of postinjury deficits, and the complex idiosyncratic time course of the appearance of these deficits argue against the valid implementation of the classical model of diagnosis. In addition, the accepted criteria of diagnostic utility are not satisfied. TBI is not a disease; it is an event. More precisely, TBI is an event or a sequence of events that can, in some instances, lead to a diagnosable neurological or psychiatric disorder.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Brain Injuries / classification
  • Brain Injuries / diagnosis*
  • Brain Injuries / pathology
  • Brain Injuries / physiopathology
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neuroimaging
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed