Background: Moderate or severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) resulting from cranial trauma is usually easily recognizable. Mild TBI (MTBI), however, may escape detection at presentation because of delayed symptoms and the absence of radiographic abnormalities. Despite its subtle or delayed presentation, the spectrum of symptoms often experienced after MTBI, collectively referred to as "postconcussive syndrome," may cause serious psychosocial dysfunction.
Methods/results: To assess the sensitivity of emergency department screening for MTBI, a prospective follow-up study was conducted on a group of patients (N = 129) who had been evaluated at a regional trauma center after blunt trauma. None had symptoms or signs of TBI at presentation, nor any history of direct cranial trauma. All were discharged to home from the emergency department without a diagnosis of TBI. At 1 month after injury, 41 of 129 (32%) patients described an increase in symptoms consistent with MTBI. The most common symptoms were insomnia (62%), headaches (58%), irritability (56%) and fatigue (56%). At 2 months, most symptoms had decreased significantly, and none had increased in severity. Despite improvement in their symptoms over that time period, 11% of those with persistent symptoms remained unable to resume their premorbid daily activities.
Conclusions: These data, obtained from a population of patients considered to be at extremely low risk for TBI, indicate that MTBI occurs more often among blunt trauma patients than is commonly appreciated, even in busy trauma centers. Because early recognition of MTBI may expedite referral of these patients for appropriate outpatient follow-up care, thereby avoiding potentially serious social and financial repercussions, emergency department personnel should have a high index of suspicion for MTBI in any patient sustaining blunt systemic trauma. Current measures that screen for MTBI appear to be inadequate; follow-up protocols may prove to be more sensitive screening tools.