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Improved battlefield diagnosis has led to a record number of concussions detected among U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq last year, with an average of 16 inflicted each day last spring, according to newly released Pentagon figures.

It was the highest pace for traumatic brain injuries of any period in 10 years of combat, according to data provided to USA TODAY. Brain injuries caused by the concussive force of a nearby blast are among the most commons wounds troops suffer.

American casualties in Afghanistan this spring are already ticking higher as the traditionally heavier summer fighting months approach, military statistics show.

Although there was an alarming increase last year in buried-explosives attacks on U.S. foot patrols in Afghanistan — where most of the casualties occurred last year — scientists believe the rise in diagnosed brain-injury cases was due largely to more aggressive efforts at detecting the wound.

"I do think that does account for the increase," says Army Col. Jamie Grimes, national director of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, which conducts brain injury research.

The number of traumatic brain injuries, the large majority of which were mild concussions, suffered each year by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2005-2011:

As a consequence, experts fear that there were countless brain injuries missed when there were far more casualties during 2005 through 2007. Combat deaths then were twice the annual rate last year.

"You're probably talking about maybe thousands of (undiagnosed) people," says Dave Hovda, director of UCLA's Brain Injury Research Center, who has worked with the military on brain treatment. "Either we didn't know about, or we didn't capture them early enough to protect them so they wouldn't develop (more serious) problems."

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