Serving in the military brings with it numerous benefits -- travel and adventure, specialized training, steady pay and health care coverage. Perhaps the most important is a sense of pride in doing important work in service of your country. On the other hand, for some, deployment in a foreign land and participating in active combat can result in long-term physical and psychological problems. One health problem that appears to be emerging in some veterans of more recent conflicts are functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGDs), such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Post-Deployment Health Problems
Most of the research done on lingering illnesses in veterans have focused on those who served in the Gulf War, but further information is emerging regarding health problems in those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ongoing health problems for returning service personnel include:
- Abnormal weight loss
- Cardiovascular disease
- Menstrual disorders
- Muscle and joint pain
- Memory and other neurological problems
- Muscle and joint pain
- Psychological disorders
- Respiratory problems
- Sleep disturbance
Many of us are familiar with the term "Gulf War Syndrome," but the the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) now uses the term “medically unexplained chronic multisymptom illnesses.” The VA recognizes that the following illnesses may have been the result of active duty in the more recent military conflicts if symptoms initially appeared during or after deployment:
What is it about military service that increases a person's risk for developing IBS? Answers may come from ongoing research on the subject of post-infectious IBS (IBS-PI). Because many military personnel are stationed in foreign lands, they are at high risk for travelers' diarrhea, foodborne illness, and other forms of infectious gastroenteritis. It has been estimated that a person's risk of developing ongoing IBS after such an illness is six times higher than that of a person who did not experience the original illness. Unfortunately, this increased risk remains in place for a few years following the initial illness.
The research on post-infectious IBS pinpoints another factor that may explain why veterans are coming home from service with IBS -- that of the role of stress. The risk for IBS-PI is heightened in individuals who experience higher levels of anxiety, particularly in conjunction with stressful life events, in the three months prior to the illness. The stressors inherent in military service -- i.e., traumatic combat experiences, ongoing fear of being harmed, and being far from home -- may be contributing to the increased risk of developing IBS.
Health Care and Disability Benefits
The ray of good news is that the VA recognizes IBS as a disabling condition eligible for health care benefits and disability compensation for those who have served in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, or Afghanistan. If you suspect that your IBS is a result of your military service, you should be eligible for a free health assessment, as well as ongoing health care services, at your local Veterans Health Administration center.
If you believe that your IBS is preventing you from engaging in gainful employment, you may be eligible for disability benefits. For a comprehensive overview of military disability benefits, see:
As many of you may know, the needs of IBS patients are under-served as effective treatment options continue to be somewhat elusive. What is needed are well-run clinical trials to identify, develop, and safety-test new and effective ways of bringing about IBS relief, and not just trials run by pharmaceutical companies. While it is heartbreaking to learn that hard-working and dedicated military personnel are struggling with these long-term health problems, their plight may open the door to the kind of research that is sorely needed. In order for that to happen, legislators need to be told of the need.
The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) has been very actively engaged in advocacy efforts for military personnel who are returning from service with FGDs. They have put together a taskforce to involve veterans in their efforts:
You do not have to be a veteran to be of help. All concerned citizens can lend their voice to efforts to ask their local legislators to increase Department of Defense funding into research and treatment for FGDs. The IFFGD has set up a system to make it easy to do this. If you're interested, follow this link to get started:
"Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses: Medically Unexplained Chronic Multisymptom Illnesses" U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs web site Accessed January 15, 2012.
Porter, C., et.al. "The Incidence and Gastrointestinal Infectious Risk of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders in a Healthy US Adult Population" American Journal of Gastroenterology 2011 106:130-138.
Porter, C., et.al. "Risk of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders in U.S. Military Following Self-Reported Diarrhea and Vomiting During Deployment " Digestive Diseases and Sciences 2011 56:3262-3269.
"Presumptive Service Connection for Diseases Associated With Service in the Southwest Asia Theater of Operations During the Persian Gulf War: Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders" Federal Register July 15, 2011.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.