Old and new ways to treat traumatic brain injuries

Updated 1/24/2011 7:36 AM

Traumatic brain injury is a major cause of death and disability worldwide, especially in young adults and children. Unfortunately, war is also a significant factor in the number of serious brain trauma events. The end result of TBI can be significant deficits in speech, understanding, memory and higher brain functions.

Physical, speech and occupational therapies are often employed to improve function and are effective. Both advances in technology and rediscovering ancient secrets from nontraditional medicine may further enhance TBI therapy.


Lets first explore technology. Last week, I learned of one group that is using specific computer programs to help with the speech difficulties associated with TBI. This foundation is called The Heart of a Marine Foundation. It is the brainchild of Roy and Georgette Frank, in honor of their son, Phil, a U.S. Marine who died in Iraq.

One of their undertakings, the Aphasia Project, is an interactive computer program that is designed to stimulate those parts of the brain associated with speech and it has proved to be effective. Through the generous donations of laptop computers and programs by The Heart of a Marine Foundation, the Aphasia Project has been incorporated in numerous veterans' hospitals, nationwide, including Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines and the North Chicago VA Medical Center Home in North Chicago. The project also is in place at the Alexian Brothers Workforce Development Learning Institute in Elk Grove Village.

Now lets examine the nontraditional approach. There is growing medical evidence that stimulation of specific acupuncture points, either by acupuncture needles or massage-like manipulation (acupressure) can affect brain function even to the point of stimulating the production of specific brain chemicals and neurotransmitters. Although not absolutely conclusive, stimulation of acupuncture points seems to be beneficial for many patients who have had stokes and TBI.

One recent study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, indicated that acupressure might be beneficial for TBI. This study, done at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colol, was designed to evaluate the effect of specific acupressure therapy on cognitive impairment after TBI.

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In this study, participants were randomly divided into an acupressure and a placebo group. The acupressure group received eight treatments of acupressure over four weeks. A number of measures of cognitive function were done at the beginning and end of the study.

Comparing the results from the beginning and ending tests, the acupressure group had significant improvements in all measures. Although the acupressure and placebo groups had similar pre-therapy scores, by the end, the acupressure group had significant improvements compared with the placebo group. An additional benefit is that acupressure is a self-care approach than can be taught to patient.

There are wonderful discoveries to be made in this world. Some are new, like the Aphasia Project while others, like acupressure, are older than recorded history. Both are beneficial. Perhaps, by integrating these old and new therapies, the results could be even more dramatic.

Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.