BACKGROUND - Trauma patients without intracranial hemorrhage or focal neurologic deficits are typically considered low risk for lasting neuropsychological and emotional deficits, and such sequela may be overlooked, especially in those with skull fractures and concussions. We undertook this study to determine the prevalence of and risk factors for persistent cognitive impairment and emotional and functional difficulties in a sample of adult trauma intensive care unit survivors without intracranial hemorrhage.
METHODS - We queried the Vanderbilt University Trauma Registry for all patients admitted during 2003 with an Injury Severity Score >25 and a head computed tomography scan showing no intracranial hemorrhage. Of the 97 patients identified, 58 were evaluated, in person between 12 to 24 months after hospital discharge, with a comprehensive battery of cognitive, emotional, and functional instruments. The Informant Questionnaire of Cognitive Decline in the Elderly-Short Form (IQCODE-SF) was used to evaluate for pre-existing cognitive deficits in patients suspected of having cognitive impairment before their trauma.
RESULTS - A total of 33 (57%) patients were determined to have cognitive impairment, which was most pronounced in the domains of attention and executive functioning/verbal fluency. Of these patients, one (3%) was determined by the IQCODE-SF to be cognitively impaired before trauma intensive care unit hospitalization. Of the 58 patients studied, 21 (36.2%) had a concussion or skull fracture and 37 (63.8%) had neither. Cognitive impairment was significantly more likely to occur in patients who sustained a concussion or skull fracture than in trauma patients who did not (81% versus 43%; p = 0.006). Patients reported significant depressive symptoms (56%), significant symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (38%), and significant symptoms of anxiety (29%). Quality of life scores were lower than in the general United States population and employment difficulties were widespread. A total of 34% of patients reported being unemployed at follow-up, and cognitive impairment was more common among these patients compared with patients in the workforce (p = 0.03). Neither cognitive impairment nor emotional dysfunction was associated with age, sex, race, Injury Severity Score, blood loss, ventilatory days, or intramedullary nailing of long-bone fractures.
CONCLUSIONS - The majority of trauma survivors without intracranial hemorrhage display persistent cognitive impairment, which is nearly twice as likely in those with skull fractures or concussions. This cognitive impairment was associated with functional defects, poor quality of life, and an inability to return to work. Future research must delineate modifiable risk factors for these poor outcomes, especially in patients with skull fractures and concussions, to help improve long-term cognitive and functional status.