Importance: The long-term clinical effects of wartime traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), most of which are mild, remain incompletely described. Current medical disability cost estimates from world conflicts continually surpass projections. Additional information regarding long-term functional trajectory is needed to reduce this extensive public health burden.
Objectives: To examine 5-year clinical outcomes leveraging existing clinical data collected at 1 year after injury in the same patients and to identify early risk factors for long-term disability.
Design, setting, and participants: This prospective, longitudinal study enrolled active-duty US military after concussive blast injury (n = 50) in the acute to subacute stage and combat-deployed control individuals (n = 44) in Afghanistan or after medical evacuation to Germany from November 1, 2008, through July 1, 2013. One- and 5-year clinical evaluations were completed in the United States. All concussive blast injuries met the Department of Defense definition of mild, uncomplicated TBI. In-person clinical evaluations included standardized evaluations for neurobehavior, neuropsychological performance, and mental health burden that were essentially identical to the evaluations completed at 1-year follow-up. Data were analyzed from October 1 through November 30, 2016.
Main outcomes and measures: Changes in the in-person standardized evaluations for neurobehavior, neuropsychological performance, and mental health burden from the 1- to 5-year follow-up. Predictive modeling was used to identify early risk factors for long-term disability.
Results: Among the 94 participants (87 men [93%] and 7 women [7%]; mean [SD] age, 34  years), global disability, satisfaction with life, neurobehavioral symptom severity, psychiatric symptom severity, and sleep impairment were significantly worse in patients with concussive blast TBI compared with combat-deployed controls, whereas performance on cognitive measures was no different between groups at the 5-year evaluation. Logistic regression on the dichotomized Extended Glasgow Outcome Scale (GOS-E) at 5 years as a measure of overall disability identified brain injury diagnosis, preinjury intelligence, motor strength, verbal fluency, and neurobehavioral symptom severity at 1 year as risk factors for a poor outcome at 5 years, with an area under the curve of 0.92 indicating excellent prediction strength. Thirty-six of 50 patients with concussive blast TBI (72%) had a decline in the GOS-E from the 1- to 5-year evaluations, in contrast with only 5 of 44 combat-deployed controls (11%). Worsening of symptoms in concussive blast TBI was also observed on measures of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. Service members with concussive blast TBI experienced evolution, not resolution, of symptoms from the 1- to 5-year outcomes.
Conclusions and relevance: Considerable decline was observed in military service members with concussive blast TBI when comparing 1- and 5-year clinical outcomes. These results advocate for new treatment strategies to combat the long-term and extremely costly effect of these wartime injuries.