Gulf War Veterans Suffer Disproportionately from Memory Problems, Chronic Pain

Posted on: March 5, 2018 Topics: gulf war, gulf war illness, veteran health

thumbanail-older-man-holding-head-in-handsWhile diverse groups of Gulf War veterans continue to report a number of symptoms collectively known as Gulf War Illness, uncertainty surrounds the prevalence of the symptoms compared to non-Gulf War veterans.

Now, a new study led by a School of Public Health researcher has found that Gulf War veterans suffer disproportionately from a variety of symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, lack of sleep, and memory problems.

The study was published in BMJ Open.

“This study shows that although these common symptoms can occur in both deployed and non-deployed veterans, there is an excess of these symptoms in the deployed veterans,” says co-author Patricia Janulewicz, assistant professor of environmental health. “This study addresses the criticism that these symptoms can occur in non-deployed groups and therefore do not constitute a unique syndrome.”

Between 1990 and 1991, the United States deployed nearly 700,000 troops in support of the Gulf War (GW). GW veterans continue to report Gulf War Illness (GWI) symptoms, including chronic pain, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, gastrointestinal complaints, respiratory symptoms, and skin rashes. Similar trends have been seen among GW veterans in other countries. Due to differences in study populations, however, prior studies have produced different estimates of the illness.

“Uncertainty remains about the prevalence of GWI across GW-deployed populations because of differences in the study populations used to derive the case definitions and the methods used to ask about health symptoms,” the authors wrote.

To better identify the most frequently reported symptoms in GW veterans compared to non-GW veterans, the researchers analyzed data from 21 studies on self-reported health symptoms from 129,000 veterans deployed during the war. The studies came from 18 unique veteran populations and four different countries, and included both active duty and reserve troops. From these studies, the researchers identified 56 distinct self-reported health symptoms.

The researchers found that GW-deployed veterans had much higher odds of reporting all 56 symptoms compared to non-GW deployed veterans. When compared by symptom category, the highest odds of symptom reporting were found in the mood-cognition, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, and dermatological symptom categories, with  GW-deployed veterans three times as likely as their counterparts to report experiencing detachment, irritability, muscle weakness, diarrhea, and rashes. The researchers also found that veterans from particular military units who were more likely to have sustained exposures to toxicant exposures during the war were up to four times more likely to report the same symptoms.

The researchers said the results suggest the identified symptoms should continue to be used when assessing GW veterans for health status, illness biomarkers, or treatment trial efficacy.

“This study also validates the chronic health symptoms not only of veterans from the US but also of those from other countries, including the UK and Australia, who also deployed to the war and have suffered from GWI but with little to no acknowledgement from their countries that this is a distinct disorder that happened as a result of their deployment,” says co-author Kimberly Sullivan, research assistant professor of environmental health.

The study was led by Alexis Maule (SPH’17); Roberta White, professor of environmental health, was senior author. Other BU co-authors included Maxine H. Krengel, assistant professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, and Michael McClean, professor of environmental health. Megan K. Yee from the VA Boston Healthcare System was also a co-author.

Salma Abdalla


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31 comments

  1. Are there any study or treatment programs in Oregon ? My local veterans clinic seems to have no knowledge of GWS I have cronic joint pain, xrays mri show common joint degeneration for my age.they can’t explain the pain .

    1. Dear Jeffrey,
      I also have degenerative disc disease in my neck but, my worst symptom of all is the severe head pain. It feels like someone hit me in the back of the head with a shovel. My pain never stops it varies in intensity. The pain has now spread to my jaw, face, and eyes. I’ve been to too many doctors to count and share your frustration. I also have many of the other symptoms but, didn’t always tell the doctor all of my problems because I didn’t want them to think I was crazy…. Now I’m having short-term memory problems. The good news is, more research is happening. Some studies show brain changes on fMRI’s. I am going to print physician peer-reviewed articles from medical journals online and take them to my neurologist, neurosurgeon, and other physicians. Reading that other Gulf War Veterans are experiencing the same health problems lets us know we are not alone! I haven’t been able to work for three years, and it’s depressing and difficult financially. I have found a few studies happening in Boston, Texas, and California. Don’t give up and keep searching. I’m praying for all of us. God Bless you & all Veterans suffering from this illness.

      P.S. Does anyone else have pain similar to what I described above?
      Best wishes & God Bless.

      1. Hi Jo,

        The Gulf War Illness Consortium Study (GWIC) is still looking for healthy and ill Gulf war veterans to participate in the study.This is a one day study in Boston, Houston or Miami. If you are interested in learning more, please give us a call at 617-358-1717. We are looking for a diagnostic marker of Gulf War illness as well as treatments. You can also email us at gwic@bu.edu or message us on our facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/gwicboston/

        Thank you.

    2. The Gulf War Illness Consortium Study (GWIC) is still looking for healthy and ill Gulf war veterans to participate in the study.This is a one day study in Boston, Houston or Miami. If you are interested in learning more, please give us a call at 617-358-1717. We are looking for a diagnostic marker of Gulf War illness as well as treatments. You can also email us at gwic@bu.edu or message us on our facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/gwicboston/

      Thank you.

  2. Carried on from last comment: they can’t explain the pain. They put me on different meds which have been ineffective .I feel like I’m being judged accused of being fake or a pill junkie. I’m not either of them I’m in pain and need help.

    1. I did try SPG nasal injections that go to the pain center of the brain. It helped a little bit. Music, medications, massage, turmeric and YouTube Hypnosis help too.

      I know how you feel, I saw a Nurse Practitioner that didn’t believe I was in pain. Insult on top of injury is cruel! I’m lucky I found some nicer doctors. Keep looking until you find someone who cares. You don’t deserve to be treated that way.

    2. Hi Jeffrey,

      The Gulf War Illness Consortium Study (GWIC) is still looking for healthy and ill Gulf war veterans to participate in the study.This is a one day study in Boston, Houston or Miami. If you are interested in learning more, please give us a call at 617-358-1717. We are looking for a diagnostic marker of Gulf War illness as well as treatments. You can also email us at gwic@bu.edu or message us on our facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/gwicboston/

      Thank you.

  3. I was in Kuwait with the Canadian Military Engineers (UNIKOM). I have been recently diagnosed with PTSD n Depression. I have noticed as well, in the last couple of years that my short to medium memory have failed me on numerous occasions. Which has resulted in some disagreements between my spouse, friends n family on what I was told at one point or another n I totally forgot about or it never registered with me. The common theme I hear is don’t you remember I told you 1-2-3 hours or days ago!
    I remember being one of the many soldiers that were sick each week we had to take our med’s?
    Is there a web site I could go to n read up on it if possible send into Veterans Affairs for their perusal n possible action.
    Thank you for your time n consideration on this matter

    1. I agree with you have had similar problems over the years. but cannot do anything about it. almost lost job over this problem,

    2. Hi Leonard,

      The Gulf War Illness Consortium Study (GWIC) is still looking for healthy and ill Gulf war veterans to participate in the study.This is a one day study in Boston, Houston or Miami. If you are interested in learning more, please give us a call at 617-358-1717. We are looking for a diagnostic marker of Gulf War illness as well as treatments. You can also email us at gwic@bu.edu or message us on our facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/gwicboston/

      Thank you.

  4. got to fight here with veterans affairs to get anything this report probably buried in government somewhere

  5. Thank you for your fine Scholarship. I am a Veteran, was definitely exposed to Chemical Agents in the First Gulf War, have diagnosis of Behcets Disease, Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and other autoimmune diseases. In Gulf War Registry language these are called non-specific. But when properly diagnosed, they can be properly treated.

  6. A lot of guys that had served over there has been sayimg this for quite some time. I have been one of them. It’ll be 50 years when we get real closure

  7. One of my fellow Americans and best friend while in the National Guard contacted some chemical or his shots prior toGW shortly after coming home showed symptoms of Parkinson’s disease today my friend can hardly walk with assistantsnce This to me to be same as Agent Orange and the water contamination at Lejuene which is where I was at for 31/2 years and have multiple symptoms but the VA refuses to recognize these symptoms as enough for even a rating

  8. Gulf War Army Vet- 1990-1991
    800th Bde-402Bn-119th Military Police Co
    Have been in GWI Studies.
    TY,
    SFC Bill Gearon

  9. I have suffered from memory loss ,lack of concentration,cronich fatigue and pain also rash for years i live un Puerto Rico

  10. That’s all good but it don’t mean a hill of beans in till the VA says that it happened and they will when most of gw vets have past. The VA are the wost to get help from.

  11. I can’t sleep and tried getting help at VA. Was told nothing wrong and can’t afford to go to doctor fo help. I just deal with it and do the best I can

  12. I’ve had nothing but problems after being in Desert Storm. Constant chronic muscle, joint pain. Gastrointestinal issues with no rhyme or reason. Dermatological issue that baffle medical professionals.

  13. I’m on 100% disability now, but only a small part of it actually covers all those unexplained ailments I have these days. They put a lot of it on my Total Brain Injury, but they have literally told me that they are taking my case file to conferences to discuss with other professionals because they just don’t know what is causing my symptoms definitively. They throw out suspicions on things like chemical exposures, sandstorms, burn pits, etc., but they say that since I was special ops and they’re weren’t enough soldiers operating in the areas I did to get a good study on, they can only monitor me and wait to see if others come up with the same symptoms or complaints.

    1. Do you have constant severe pain in the back of your head? I’ve told my doctor’s it feels like I’ve been hit in the back of the head with a shovel. The head pain also radiates to the sides and top of my head. My pain is worse in the morning and my face swells. When I stand up, walk, or travel in a car my pain increases. I have jaw pain and stabbing eye pain. (I use Tooth numbing gel on the jaw muscles inside my mouth which actually helps lessen the facial nerve and eye pain) I have severe muscle cramps, stiff shoulders & stiff neck and it feels like my bones hurt. Now I’m having short-term memory problems, finding words, saying words, difficulty concentrating, weakness and tired all the time. Tinitis and a drum roll sound in my ear when I lay on my side. My lymph nodes under my ears & chin feel sore like an infection.
      Wishing you the best & other Veterans in pain.

  14. The most prevalent symptom I have suffered with since my return from the PGW has been insomnia. Stomach problems follows as a close second. I was part of a VA sponsored Gulf War Syndrome study in 2003/2004. I am mycoplasma positive to this day. Once the VA gathered their data, they were not very forthcoming with solutions. The antibiotic they placed me on had unacceptable side effects. Once I reported this, communication ceased. Developed sleep issues which doctors defined being depression related and possible PTSD. This led to medications which in turn led to me losing my career, because those medications are not allowed when one’s job is fly an airplane. I have lost faith with the VA, and doctor’s altogether. I have asked myself if these symptoms are something I suffered from despite being a soldier and having been exposed to vaccines, and other drugs administered by the military. The answer is a definite NO from my spouse. She is positive these problems started after my return from the war. The VA focuses on chemical exposure to some units based on geographic location, and proximity to chemical burn sites. They totally discounted us troops who had to fly through those black toxic clouds. We had mission hard times on target and couldn’t just “fly around” miles of airborne toxins. Either way, life in my late 50s is far from being anything one could call good quality.

  15. Got deployed to Incerlik AB not the theater of War, 91 92 Vaccinations and pills while there. 2004 undiagnosed illness, fibromyalgia,degenerative arthritis ankles wrist elbows knees, headachs, joint pain swelling. Recieved NSC pension. All medical records lost.

  16. Is there any way you can let us know if there are going to be any tests in our areas? I am having bad memory problems and neurological problems that my civilian doctors are still working on. I was deployed to the AOR 90-91. I would love to get tested and be more involved in this research program.

    Thank you, Susan Mitchell

  17. The Gulf War Illness Consortium Study (GWIC) is still looking for healthy and ill Gulf war veterans to participate in the study.This is a one day study in Boston, Houston or Miami. If you are interested in learning more, give us a call at 617-358-1717. We are looking for a diagnostic marker of Gulf War illness as well as treatments. You can also email us at gwic@bu.edu or message us on our facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/gwicboston/

    Thank you.

  18. I never stepped foot in the Middle East but have just about every symptom that everyone mentions. 91 to 94 USN. I am 46 now and the past year has been the worst but I have managed to reduce anxiety (a lot) by throwing my hands in the air and just not trying to complete what I set out to do. Which, has helped with focusing on what is happening right then with symptoms. I’m not the type of person that has ever been able to neglect tasks and be unproductive. There are studies but how in the hell are we supposed to travel to another city, or state if you feel like you have been hit with a convoy. I’ve had tests done recently, that I am waiting (CT of abdominal and pelvic, MRI on head and neck) to hear back on for over a month. Impatient? Hell yes! I have been delapitating for about 10 years. I really feel for the people who actually went to Kuwait.

  19. So similar to cipro toxicity. Lots of denials by the medical community. Unfortunately, no definitive diagnosis criteria or treatment options. I hope the veteran groups keep fighting.

  20. As a Gulf War vet who tried to seek help from the VA, all I can say is good luck. The quickest claim I’ve ever had processed was the claims that said Gulf War. Those Claims were expedited strait to the circular file to be legalized to non-service related. Just wish the VBA could clean up there act instead of taking it out on the veteran they are supposed to be supporting.

  21. I am not a vet, but my husband is. Was deployed in 90-91 to Gulf War (not sure of specifics). Anyway, he was in the Marines, on a ship in the Gulf at the time. For the last 3-4 yrs., he has had headaches, memory loss, inability to concentrate, severe muscle and joint pain, discoloration of skin under his underarms. Very tired all the time. He has been to MANY doctors, (neurologists, endocrinologist, liver specialist, respiratory, and sleep specialist. He wears CPAP, but says he still doesn’t sleep well. I think he may have GWS, but he refuses to think that because he saw no combat. We went to VA in Chillicothe, Ohio, and made suggestion of GWS, and all they could say is they thought we were after money! My husband is suffering!! States he don’t know how much more he can take. Still trying to work, doing best he can. Says he shouldn’t feel this bad at only age 50. None of the many docs he has seen can make an absolute diagnosis. Any suggestions? August 21, 2018

  22. I’m going to Houston to participate in a study on September, 10th. Memory, fatigue and pain are my biggest problems. They seem to be getting much worse as I get older.

    I’m really angry at the gov’t in general, feels like they abandoned us before the conflict was even over. I don’t know, after so many years of waiting, it feels pointless from a health perspective. I’m mid fifties now and suffered through this in my twenties, thirties and forties. When I first approached the V.A., I was treated as a malingerer but it seems like they are starting to take it seriously now. Too little, too late IMO, but maybe it gets figured out, we get our honor back and can give TPTB a big F.U.

    Rock of the Marne!

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