Traumatic Brain Injury can be caused by many factors, such as a blow to the head or an object penetrating the brain, and may result in brain dysfunction. A concussion, for example, is a common form of TBI, however not all TBIs are concussions. For the most recent generation of veterans, TBIs are increasingly more widespread due to increased use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Southwest Asia.
How are TBIs Diagnosed?
Traumatic brain injuries are diagnosed as mild, moderate, or severe based upon medical testing and the gravity of the veteran’s symptoms. Doctors will first try to detect TBIs using medical imaging such as PET, CT, or MRI scans, however these results are often inconclusive. Next, the immediate effects that you experienced as a result of your TBI are taken into consideration, such as the amount of time you remained unconscious or experienced post-traumatic amnesia.
The signs and symptoms you face after the traumatic event can also provide insight as to how severe your TBI is. Commonly reported symptoms include:
- Dizziness and headaches
- Visual eyesight impairment
- Tinnitus or hearing loss
- Weak muscles
- Stroke or paralysis
- Coordination, balance, and gait disorders
- Difficulty communicating in writing or verbally
- Impaired memory
- Difficulty concentrating, and more
How Does VA Rate a TBI After It Has Become Service-Connected?
Upon applying for disability compensation for a traumatic brain injury, VA will evaluate your condition based on the residual symptoms you are currently experiencing as a result of the trauma. The VA rates these residuals on a scale of 0, 1, 2, 3, or total—with each of these increments corresponding to a disability rating. See table below:
The VA divides the rating criteria of TBI residuals into 10 subcategories in order to evaluate cognition. Veterans are rated based on the level of impairment in these areas of functioning:
- Memory, attention, concentration, and executive functions
- Social interaction
- Motor activity
- Visual spatial orientation
- Subjective Symptoms
- Neurobehavioral effects
Veterans should receive a disability rating for every severity score assigned. For example, if the impairment of your memory, attention, concentration, and executive functions is given a severity score of 3, that single score can lead to a 70% disability rating.
Note: Keep in mind that residual symptoms of a TBI can take some time to appear. Do not hesitate to file a claim if there is a gap of time separating the head trauma from the residual symptoms.
Are Veterans with TBI’s Eligible for Other VA Benefits?
Yes. Veterans who suffered a service-connected traumatic brain injury may be eligible for other VA benefits. Veterans who are rated below 100% for their traumatic brain injury residuals may qualify for Total Disability based on Individual Unemployability (TDIU). TDIU allows veterans to be compensated at the 100% rate, even if their conditions do not combine to equal a 100% schedular rating. TDIU can pose a significant benefit for veterans rated below 100% but are unable to work due to their disabilities.
Veterans who suffered a TBI may also qualify for a VA benefit known as Special Monthly Compensation (SMC). SMC is reserved for veterans who have an especially debilitating disability, or combination of disabilities, that warrants compensation beyond the 100% rate. Traumatic brain injuries have their own level of special monthly compensation known as SMC(t). Veterans who are in need of regular Aid and Attendance (A&A) as a result of a service-connected severe TBI may qualify for the increased special monthly compensation rate of SMC(t).
Secondary Service Connection
Often times, a traumatic brain injury may cause or aggravate another condition. When this occurs, the veteran can become service-connected for this secondary condition. For example, if a veteran is taking medication to treat the symptoms of his or her service-connected TBI and they get an ulcer as a result of that medication, he or she should be able to receive disability compensation for the ulcer. In this context, the TBI would be the primary service-connected disability and the ulcer would be a secondary service-connected disability.
Are There Conditions Known to Be Associated with TBIs?
Yes. VA presumes certain conditions are secondary to traumatic brain injuries:
- Parkinsonism and Parkinson’s Disease
- Hormone deficiencies
Although these conditions are presumptive to moderate-to-severe TBIs occurred in service, VA has set in place time restrictions that limit this presumptive status.
The VA Often Makes Mistakes When Service Connecting TBIs. What Can I Do to Help My Claim?
- When applying or appealing, be sure to list all of the symptoms that you wish to be compensated for. Keep in mind that the VA will rate you based upon your current symptoms, not your symptoms while in service.
- Submit lay evidence in the form of statements from yourself, friends, family, members, etc. detailing your symptoms and their severity.
- Submit opinions from your doctor describing your symptoms and their severity.
- The rating criteria for TBIs can be complex and hard to follow. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a VSO, accredited claims agent, or attorney for help throughout the VA claims and appeals process.