Posted on January 6, 2010 · Posted in Brain Injury

I began my treatment of the Congressional hearings on the long term brain damage of concussion in the NFL yesterday at my Brain Injury Lawyer Blog – I will continue that discussion on this blog for the next several blogs, as I tackled an even more important topic at that of why an experienced brain injury attorney is even more important in a severe brain injury case than it is in a non-coma brain injury case.

Much of the controversy at the hearings was over the statements of Ira. R. Casson, M.D., formerly co-chair of the NFL concussion committee, that there was insufficient scientific evidence to prove this narrow question: Whether playing NFL football causes permanent brain damage. Fortunately, Dr. Casson’s academic skepticism was not the sole testimony heard by the committee. The committee also heard about evolving neuro-imaging techniques in the diagnosis of concussion, principally from Ronald Benson, M.D. of Department of Neurology, Wayne State University Medical School. Dr. Benson’s prepared remarks begin much differently than Casson’s:

I would like to share with you some observations from eight years of evaluating traumatic brain injury cases, the vast majority of which I obtain neuropsychological testing and advanced MRimaging:

  • 1) People with TBI are frequently misdiagnosed, often by multiple physicians;
  • 2) The most frequent diagnostic category given is psychiatric—anxiety, depression, conversiondisorder;
  • 3) Two neuropsychologists studying the same patient may differ considerably regarding existence of TBI;
  • 4) TBI symptoms overlap considerably with those of “primary” psychiatric disorders;
  • 5) Without the ability to “see” the brain injury with imaging, there is no completely objective way to determine what is TBI and what is something else, e.g., posttraumatic stress, conversion, malingering;
  • 6) People with brain injury seem to vary considerably in severity of symptoms and recovery in the face of similar falls, crashes, etc. This may speak to population differences in resistance to injury or effectiveness of neural recovery mechanisms and is in agreement with Collins, et al. who found large differences in recovery from single concussion (North American Brain Injury Society Annual Meeting, 2009);
  • 7) Advanced MR imaging techniques, including susceptibility-weighted (SWI), diffusion tensor (DTI) and MR spectroscopy (MRSI) are able to reveal brain injuries where CT scans and conventional MRI appear normal.

That was a hell of an introductory statement from Dr. Benson. He seemed to capture the challenge in representing the survivors of brain injury in those seven bullet points. He goes on to detail the excitement of using state of the art MRI techniques to diagnosing mild traumatic brain injury, which I will discuss in future blogs. But today, I want to focus on the first six bullet points.

1. Misdiagnosis. Frankly all six points could all be summarized with the statement that because the diagnosis of TBI is subjective, that misdiagnosis of the existence and severity of brain injury is the norm.

2. TBI is Often Labeled Psychiatric. I have said this before and will say it again: The challenge in diagnosing and treating brain injury is not in afixing a label of organic or psychiatric on the symptoms, but on treating the entire spectrum of brain related disability. Any TBI diagnostician who labels an emotional symptom after concussion as psychiatric or pre-existing, is missing the point. Brain injury impacts the emotions and those with pre-existing emotional problems are those most likely to be impacted.

3. Neuropsychologists Disagree. As is now common knowledge within the field of brain injury, neuropsychology is as polarized as our politics and almost on party lines. Neuropsychology is made up believers and non-believers that concussion can cause permanent brain damage. There is a lot of objective and subjective evidence for the believers to rely on. There is the academic skepticism of (similar to what Dr. Casson testified to) for the non-believers to rely on. There is no middle ground. For that reason, virtually every forensic case has two neuropsychologists who radically disagree.

4. TBI Symptoms Overlap. The neurons and the emotions are both in the brain. It is fundamental that one cannot injure neurons without effecting emotions. It is less evident but as true that one cannot impact emotions without changing neurons. Our brain’s hard wiring is the synergistic total of our genetic organic network and the sum of the changes to that network as a result of our experiences and pathologies that occur whether by disease, by trauma or via living.

5. Without Seeing the Pathology, No Objective Way to Prove TBI. I disagree with Dr. Benson to some degree on this issue. Differential diagnosis is not about looking at the results of some test, in any field of medical science. It is about a learned professional looking at the clinical history, listening to the patient’s story and reviewing more objective tests. Without the subjective application of an experienced mind to the entire spectrum of the problem, no diagnosis can be made, certainly not in a field as complex and subjective as brain injury. Neuroimaging may improve the accuracy of such diagnosis in the future but the goal is not to find an objective test we can rely on but to have better and less biased professionals engage in more thorough differential diagnosis. There is no 15 minute diagnosis of brain injury and no 15 minute solution.

6. Outcome unpredictable. Something I wrote over a decade ago was an essay entitled “Miracles and Tragedies.” I wrote that essay as I contemplated the “miracles in severe cases”and the “tragedies in so-called mild cases.” Such ironic criss-crossing of outcomes has been a universal theme of my career. I am continually amazed at how much better catastrophically brain injured survivors can get while aghast at how many mild brain injury survivors get worse and worse. I have gained greater insight into the problem since I wrote that essay but only because of the frequency that the criss-crossing of outcomes occurs. It is heartening to see a nationally recognized doctor educating Congress about that irony.

In our next blog more about advances in MRI and neuroimaging.

About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447