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High-profile cases of brain injuries motivate ER trips

| Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 4:50 p.m.

Hospitals reported about 30 percent more emergency visits for traumatic brain injuries over four years as Americans learn more about the often-dangerous injuries, a UPMC researcher said on Tuesday.

“Now that we know more about traumatic brain injury, people are being appropriately more conservative” and seeking treatment, said Dr. Jennifer R. Marin, an emergency medicine physician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville.

The study found about 2.5 million emergency visits nationwide for the brain injuries in 2010, an increase of 29 percent in the visit rate from 2006. Total emergency department visits climbed 3.6 percent in the same period, according to their analysis, which cites data from the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample database. The majority of the increase occurred in visits coded as concussions and other unspecified head injuries.

The findings will be published in a research letter Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Marin said growing public attention to brain injuries in the past decade led researchers to explore whether hospitals are logging more cases. She said 2010 marked the most recent data available, which do not examine localized trends in individual states or cities.

Marin and other doctors said high-profile brain injuries to NFL players are helping spotlight the issue. Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Health Network has seen a roughly 50 percent increase in concussion cases over the past three years, said neurology Chairman Dr. Jack Wilberger.

“Fortunately, we're not seeing a significant increase in severe head injuries,” he said. He said the uptick in concussion cases arose largely from a recent state law that requires students concussed in public schools to see trained physicians.

Marin said part of the increase in reported cases probably stems from an actual surge in head injuries as people become more physically active. She also cited more awareness in the medical community, where Marin said doctors might be more likely to document head injuries.

“In the past, perhaps, we weren't as likely to acknowledge a head injury from a fall or head trauma in the (patient's) chart because it wasn't necessarily a complaint or a concern. Or we didn't ask about it,” she said. “Now that we know more about head injuries, we know the questions to ask.”

Marin said her findings suggest brain injuries remain “a big problem” that demand attention and readiness, including from primary care physicians.

Separately, state health data show 2,225 people in Pennsylvania died of traumatic brain injuries in 2010, up from 2,134 in 2006.

The number of people hospitalized with traumatic brain injuries in 2010 was 17,034, down from 18,389 in 2006, the state numbers show.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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