Frequently in my practice I meet veterans who have a variety of symptoms that can’t be attributed to a single cause. The vets go to doctors in and outside the VA who can’t easily figure out what is going on with their health, and they are often misdiagnosed as a result. The problems are very real for the veteran and, unfortunately, the answers are few and far between.
There are nearly 700,000 service members who served in the 1991 Gulf War. The VA estimates nearly 35 percent of those veterans continue to suffer ongoing, chronic symptoms and illnesses, the result of what is commonly called Gulf War Syndrome.
Symptoms affecting Gulf War vets may include headaches, fatigue, joint pains, insomnia, dizziness, indigestion, breathing disorders and memory problems. The VA no longer uses the diagnosis Gulf War Syndrome, but instead refers to these illnesses as chronic multi-symptom illness and undiagnosed illness because of how widely the symptoms can vary from person to person.
What causes Gulf War Syndrome?
Even the VA doesn’t have a definite answer to this yet. Was it because of a chemical exposure, an airborne hazard, vaccination, pollutant or other cause? Possibly.
According to the BBC:
“One popular theory was that soldiers had become ill after exposure to depleted uranium in tank shells. However, troops not exposed to this were just as likely to suffer chronic health problems later on. The same was true of those exposed to fumes from burning oil wells. In fact, no link could be found between veteran ill health and specific jobs or tasks.
“Pesticides have also been suggested as a cause, perhaps affecting the nervous system. But detailed studies found no evidence of damage that could explain this.”
The VA and the Institute of Medicine are conducting a multi-year study now to determine possible causes of Gulf War Syndrome and the best treatment options for combatting the symptoms that veterans still suffer.
Though Gulf War Syndrome is a very real condition with debilitating symptoms, it still largely remains a mystery 25 years later, confounding doctors and medical researchers. For veterans suffering from these symptoms, it can be difficult to get answers and effective treatment.
American and British troops first began complaining of symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome when they returned home, but it would take five years before any medical research was begun on the illness, according to BBC News.
The U.S. and British governments set up disease registers and initially assessed more than 100,000 veterans, according to news reports, but failed to find a pattern to symptoms to indicate a new condition.
From news reports:
In the mid-1990s, scientists at King’s College London (KCL) conducted X-rays and blood tests on British Gulf War veterans suffering ill health. However, they couldn’t find any physical differences between them and a control group.
Yet the suffering was undeniable. A further KCL study in 2009 found Gulf veterans were two to three times more likely to report 53 different symptoms, including chronic fatigue and nerve pain, compared with soldiers deployed to Bosnia. None of the symptoms were unique to the Gulf War, but they were experienced in far higher numbers.
“They’re known as medically unexplained physical symptoms,” says Neil Greenberg, a professor of defence mental health at KCL. “The symptoms are very real, but like with irritable bowel syndrome, there is no obvious physical problem causing it.”
A study by Boston University researchers, published in the journal Cortex earlier this year, reports “the first conclusive scientific evidence that ‘clearly and consistently’ shows that exposure to pesticides and other toxins caused Gulf War Illness,” according to a report by Newsmax.
The researchers concluded that “exposure to pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide (PB) — prophylactic pills intended to protect troops against the effects of possible nerve gas — are ‘causally associated with GWI and the neurological dysfunction in Gulf War veterans.’”
Treatment and Help for Gulf War Syndrome
While the VA might seem best equipped to help veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, often vets need to look outside the system for answers and treatment.
Veterans deserve the very best care that modern medicine can provide.
Often multiple-system illnesses like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic gastrointestinal problems and other undiagnosed illnesses don’t get the attention or classification veterans feel they should.
This is when a doctor outside the VA may be better able to identify the problems as being multi-system. When the VA is evaluating disability claims to determine if a condition is service-connected, they look for consistent medical treatment to prove the existence and extent of a condition. This applies to Gulf War Syndrome, as well as other illness.
As I frequently tell vets in my office: The VA won’t take your word for it that you have a problem. They want to see that the problem is bad enough that you seeking medical help to try to get better. And sometimes that means seeing doctors outside the VA.
If you are a veteran suffering from illnesses related to your service in the Gulf War, there are several other benefits and services for which you may be eligible, in addition to disability compensation and benefits from the Veterans Administration.
North Carolina veterans may be eligible for a variety of other benefits, including a Gulf War Registry health exam, the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, as well as health care and disability compensation for the disease or diseases they suffer from that are related to military service.