Caring for wounded warrior hearts

A clinical pharmacist checks the blood pressure of a soldier (U.S. Army photo).

A clinical pharmacist checks the blood pressure of a soldier (U.S. Army photo).

With February designated as American Heart Health Month, it is a good time of year for everyone, including wounded warriors, to evaluate their heart health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing National Center for Health Statistics data, reports that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. The report also states that in 2008 heart disease caused the death of more than 616,000 people and it caused almost 25 percent of all deaths—almost one in every four—in the U.S.

You may think heart disease is just a risk for men in their forties, but heart health should be a top concern for everyone, especially wounded warriors.

“Heart health is easily forgotten in the midst of all the other issues that wounded warriors face and because of the young age of most Soldiers recovering at Warrior Transition Units (WTUs),” said COL Colin M. Greene, MD, U.S. Army Warrior Transition Command (WTC) Surgeon. COL Greene began his career as an Army family physician in 1987, progressing through clinic, hospital staff, residency teaching faculty, and leadership positions. He earned a Master of Public Health in 2006 and a Master of Science in 2011.  

The Simple 7
There are some things everyone, including wounded warriors, should do for better heart health. According to the American Heart Association, everyone should follow “The Simple 7”:

1. Stop smoking
2. Manage blood pressure and stress
3. Eat foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and salt
4. Control cholesterol
5. Be physically active
6. Maintain a healthy weight
7. Reduce blood sugar

TRICARE Health Matters, a TRICARE publication, states that controlling these risk areas may add years to your life as well as help to keep your overall medical costs down. It also states that people who adhere to their doctor’s directions when it comes to these and other behaviors are less likely to have a surprise emergency room visit.

Managing Stress
There are many resources available to help manage stress. For example, according to the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness- Performance and Resilience Enhancement Program (CSF-PREP) website, CSF-PREP provides a systematic way to build mental and emotional strength—including skills for managing stress—using scientifically tested, evaluated and validated education methods from the fields of sport and performance psychology.

“Stress impedes healing,” said Mr. Mark A. Campbell, who acts as lead on all WTU related curricula, the WTU Resident Course, and as the CSF-PREP Liaison to WTC. Campbell is currently working toward his doctorate in Health Promotion and Wellness.

“An additional consideration when talking about heart health for wounded warriors is the increased levels of stress,” Campbell said. “Science shows us that people who are in a state of higher stress take longer to heal. The body releases cortisol and adrenaline which lingers in the body suppressing the immune system. “Energy management” is a term used to describe the process in which a person uses deliberate strategies to leverage the body’s energy resources. Effective management of energy can mitigate the effects of stress.”  

The National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2) developed a mobile app, Breathe2Relax, that provides easily accessible relief for stress and anxiety, according to the T2 website. Breathe2Relax is a diaphragmatic breathing trainer that uses a smartphone’s interactive learning capabilities to teach deep-breathing exercises through video instruction and interactive demonstrations.

“It’s simple and effective for controlling stress when used either as a stand-alone tool, or in association with face-to-face psychological health care,” said Dr. Perry Bosmajian, a psychologist and project lead for the Breathe2Relax mobile application, in a blog post.

Staying Active
According to COL Greene, another consideration for wounded warriors is maintaining some type of physical activity even when wounds and injuries may prevent conventional fitness routines.

“The Military Services have adopted adaptive reconditioning programs, such as adaptive sports, to provide enjoyable and accessible ways for wounded warriors to stay fit,” COL Greene said.

The upcoming Warrior Games will provide opportunities for athletes from each service to compete in several adaptive sports. A U.S. Olympic Committee press release states that since the inception of the Warrior Games, medical treatment facilities, WTUs and Wounded Warrior Battalions East (Camp Lejeune) and West (Camp Pendleton) have seen a more than 20 percent increase in sports program participation by wounded, ill and injured Service members.

This month, ask yourself, “Are you following The Simple 7? Are you taking advantage of programs to manage stress like CSF-PREP or Breathe2Relax? Are you staying active in any way you can, such as participating in adaptive reconditioning programs?” Take an opportunity this American Heart Health month to ask your primary care physician what resources you have available and what you can do to ensure you have a healthy heart.