In concussion debate, don’t forget toll on first-responders

More funding for a cure and better training and data are critical for law enforcement

Capitol Police officers receive medical treatment after clashes with pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Capitol Police officers receive medical treatment after clashes with pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 14, 2021 at 6:00am

Concussions and other injuries sustained by law enforcement at the Capitol on Jan. 6 garnered national headlines. While much of the national dialog surrounding concussions over the past decade has focused on athletes, concussions, also known as mild traumatic brain injuries or mTBI, are a daily hazard faced by first-responders across the country.

Although specific data on the annual number of concussions sustained is lacking, assaults and violent acts, vehicle crashes, falls, explosive forced entry, flash-bang devices and repeated low-level blast exposure are among the reported causes of concussions in first-responders.

Last week, Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., John Rutherford, R-Fla., Don Bacon, R-Neb., and Val B. Demings, D-Fla., reintroduced their TBI and PTSD Law Enforcement Training Act. The bill would implement a number of measures to better train law enforcement for interactions with individuals suffering from PTSD or TBI. This training would help ensure the safety of members of the community, as well as first-responders. In addition, the bill would require the CDC to study and report on the prevalence and incidence of concussions among first-responders and to recommend resources for first-responders who have experienced a concussion.

This is an apt time not only to reintroduce this bill but also to add funding for concussion drug research and development. National Police Week, which began May 9, recognizes law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty for the safety and protection of others. May is also National Mental Health Awareness Month, bringing attention to policies needed to support and help people with mental illness and their families.

While most people recover from their concussions, some have symptoms that plague them for months and even years. Symptoms may take days or weeks to appear and when they do, they are often not recognized as concussion symptoms. The TBI and PTSD bill would help us quantify how many concussions our first-responders incur each year and develop strategies for treatment and limiting their occurrence. There are no real treatments available today, and that must change.

Not long ago, we thought concussions were mostly harmless. In fact, athletes who had their “bells rung” were cheered for shaking off a concussion and getting back on the playing field. That approach is misguided and dangerous. Despite the strides made over the past decade on concussion education, policy and prevention, the CDC reports that almost 3 million U.S. patients with suspected brain injury visit the emergency room every year. Other studies indicate an even bigger problem with estimates of 5 million patients visiting emergency departments every year to be evaluated for a head injury. Approximately one-half are diagnosed with a TBI (mild, moderate or severe) and as many as 95 percent of those with suspected TBI have mTBI. Many other concussions go unreported.

Concussions are often referred to as the “invisible injury” because they don’t show up on an X-ray or CT scan. The symptoms can be both physically and emotionally debilitating and last from months to years. Up to one-third of patients do not fully recover from their mTBIs. Symptoms such as headaches; depression; cognitive, memory, vision and balance issues; and sleep disorders can make it difficult to function at work and at home.

We’ve seen significant advances in many areas of medicine, most recently evidenced by the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines have been developed and brought to market. At present, treatment for concussions is primitive and basically nonexistent. We are focused on the symptoms, not the cure. Recent advancements in molecular biology and an increased understanding of brain science are encouraging researchers to explore possibilities of a treatment.

Until we have concussion drugs available, it’s critical that first-responders have the training to recognize and deal with the symptoms of concussion in their daily interactions with the public, their co-workers and themselves. We also need data that quantifies the prevalence of TBI in first-responders to ensure that they are getting the medical attention and emotional support they need. 

That’s why Congress should pass the TBI and PTSD Law Enforcement Training Act and add funding for concussion drug research and development, so that one day we’ll have an effective treatment for concussions.

Michael Wyand, DVM, PhD, is the CEO of Oxeia Biopharmaceuticals. Oxeia is conducting Phase 2 human clinical studies for its therapeutic drug, OXE-103, to treat concussions.