Post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, hearing damage and loss of limbs have emerged as some of the defining injuries of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A new study adds spinal trauma to the list.
The study, recently published in the journal Spine, is based on 7,877 casualty records of soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009. In total, 11.1 percent – 1 in 9 – had a spinal injury. That rate may be 10 times higher than during the Vietnam War, according to the researchers.
Lead author Andrew Schoenfeld was an orthopaedic surgeon and assistant professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso, TX, when he undertook the study. Now a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Schoenfeld also served in Afghanistan, although this research is not tied to his time there.
His study focused on soldiers who survived, and he said one reason for the higher rate of spinal injuries is that medical advancements allow military personnel to endure injuries that would have been fatal in previous wars. As he put it, “We’re much better at saving the lives of soldiers.”
More than 80 percent of the spinal injuries were fractures, and the chief cause was explosions (74.5 percent), followed by gunshot wounds (14.8 percent). Regarding the ratio, Schoenfeld explained a bomb blast rattles the entire skeleton while a bullet might not even hit the spinal column.
His study is relevant not just for veterans of recent wars, but soldiers who will serve in future conflicts. Schoenfeld said the findings can inform military planning by showing the need for enhanced training, detection and emergency management of spinal injuries.
What stood out to me was the average age of the injured– 26.6 years old. That’s so young to be left with injuries that could shape your life.
Even service members who experience only a minor physical injury could have lasting wounds that aren’t so visible. In a separate study that hasn’t been published yet, Schoenfeld looked at service members who were deployed to Iraq but were unable to remain in the military. The top three health reasons for their exit were post-traumatic stress disorder, back pain and traumatic brain injury.
“Many individuals who sustain TBI, they come home with their unit,” Schoenfeld said. “They’re not even aware of the cumulative damage that’s been done.”
Here’s hoping the next wave of advancements include more effective equipment to shield soldiers from trauma – both to the body and the mind.
The opinions expressed in "Research Spotlight" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.