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Traumatic brain injury rates higher among men, Native Americans

Health department focuses on awareness, prevention
Seasonal activities such as travel and outdoor recreation often contribute toward higher rates of traumatic brain injury during the summer. (Herald file photo)

As warm weather approaches, increased travel and participation in outdoor activities may increase the risk of traumatic brain injury incidents.

Traumatic brain injuries are a major cause of injury and death in the U.S. They can be caused by any degree of forceful impact to the head that disrupts normal brain function.

“While brain injury happens most often in motor vehicle accidents and athletic activities, they can happen to anyone at any time, including in our own homes,” DOH Deputy Secretary Dr. Laura Parajon said in a news release. “If you think you might have a brain injury from a head injury, it’s important to see a health care provider right away.”

According to the CDC, there were 64,000 traumatic brain injury-related deaths in the U.S. in 2020. Falls, impacts from or by an object and motor vehicle crashes are common sources of traumatic brain injury. The effects can last for a few days or for the rest of an individual’s life.

In 2019, New Mexico had 1,048 traumatic brain injury-related hospitalizations and 663 traumatic brain injury-related deaths. New Mexico Department of Health statistics show that men are three times more likely than women to experience fatal traumatic brain injuries, while Native Americans are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to experience fatal traumatic brain injuries. Hospitalization rates are also higher for men and Native Americans in New Mexico.

The DOH was awarded funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Core State Injury Prevention Program to improve injury infrastructure. Traumatic brain injury prevention is one of the project’s priorities, with a focus on men and American Indian populations.

Dr. Christopher Payne, neurosurgeon with San Juan Regional Medical Center, said the majority of traumatic brain injuries the hospital sees are motor vehicle-related, with about 10% being related to recreational activity such as UTV and mountain biking accidents.

While patients Payne works with are usually those with moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries, but he said it is important to remember that a person does not have to lose consciousness to suffer a traumatic brain injury. Even when someone sustains what may seem like mild head injury, he or she should be carefully observed.

Symptoms of traumatic brain injury include impaired thinking, memory, movement and sensation, as well as emotional changes and depression. Symptoms may not appear for several hours and continued observation is recommended.

Payne emphasized the importance of following medical advice when resuming activity after a traumatic brain injury because the brain is more susceptible to repeat injury and injuries can have a cumulative effect. Multiple head injuries often lead to serious long-term effects.

Children engaged in sports or those who regularly participate in outdoor recreation should be aware of the risks associated with returning to activity before being cleared by a medical professional, Payne said.

When someone is cleared for normal activity, prevention of additional brain injuries is critical. Precautions include wearing protective gear when participating in athletics and recreational activities, wearing seat belts when driving and properly securing children in car seats.

The DOH recommends safe play techniques when engaging in recreation and sports, as well as a helmet when operating OHVs, motorcycles and bicycles, and while horseback riding and skiing.

“You can’t imagine the drastic difference that just wearing a helmet makes,” Payne said. He said proper protective gear cannot only mean the difference between life and death, but between being able to function in everyday life after a traumatic brain injury and needing lifelong assistance.

Long-term effects can range from frequent headaches, sleep disturbance and difficulty concentrating to seizures and permanent vertigo.

Payne said that the long-term effects can be life-altering when a child cannot concentrate during school or can only spend limited amounts of time looking at a screen, or when adults who experience impaired thinking or memory issues can no longer function in the workplace. Vertigo and epilepsy can effect an individual’s ability to drive, as well.

An adventurous child and active adult himself, Payne said he does not advocate preventing children from participating in sports or avoiding activities that have the potential for injuries, but measure to prevent injury should be taken.

Payne said that if someone does sustain a brain injury, it is important to be “cognizant of the features that could indicate that something is really wrong, even if it's a temporary thing like momentary confusion … and seek medical advice as soon as possible.”