Army Capt. Daniel Hines knew something was wrong with his friend. Normally a model soldier and enthusiastic recruiter for the Army, the friend was now complaining of burnout, acting irritable and getting into bar fights.
“If there hadn’t been an intervention, I believe he would have just spiraled out of control,” Hines said. “He would have been arrested; he would have ruined that stellar career he had.”
Hines’ friend had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) following several blast exposures. He began struggling with TBI and substance abuse. This dangerous combination was the focus of a recent episode of The TBI Family, a podcast series by the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC).
TBI is a risk factor for substance abuse, especially among those who were heavy drinkers prior to an injury, according to Lars Hungerford, a senior clinical research director for DVBIC. Alcohol use can put service members recovering from TBI at a disadvantage. Drinking can hamper the brain’s healing process and make the symptoms of a TBI worse. This in turn can lead to more drinking in an effort to manage the worsening symptoms.
“It's this vicious cycle where you've got an inflammatory process in the cerebral cortex, which … amplifies alcohol use,” said Hungerford.
A TBI can also disrupt production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that among other things affects motor control and reward-motivated behavior. Your body relies on dopamine production to know when your actions are affecting you negatively, Hungerford said. When that production is unbalanced, you may have trouble identifying which habits harm you.
“You're gaining weight, you're constantly late to work, getting yourself into trouble, and your wife is getting ready to leave you,” said Hungerford. “You're not picking any of that stuff up because your brain isn't working properly.”
Ezra Aune, a regional program manager for DVBIC, said that early identification of the issues, both of TBI and any substance use issues, can improve the odds of a more successful recovery from the injury.
Service members and their caregivers need to stay alert to other issues, such as drinking, that may be present along with a TBI.
“A sober-support network [along with] addressing the substance-use piece within the context of, ‘I'm trying to let my brain heal’ will really improve that prognosis,” said Aune.
If you or anyone you know has experienced a TBI, the DVBIC website has resources to help you cope, seek help and recover. If you are struggling with alcohol abuse, and don’t know where to turn, the DCoE Outreach Center can help you find resources in your area. Call 866-966-1020, email the Outreach Center or live chat with an Outreach counselor.