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Gulf War Syndrome Still a Mystery

WebMD Health News

June 16, 2000 -- They suffer from recurrent headaches, joint stiffness, nausea, anxiety, and depression. Their symptoms have been the focus of numerous studies over the last decade, including one recent report of brain cell damage similar to that seen in the early stages of Parkinson's disease. Yet for Gulf War veterans, there still is no researcher who can pinpoint a truly unique set of symptoms that they can label as Gulf War syndrome.

A new, large study once again finds that those deployed to the Persian Gulf "do not demonstrate the existence of a unique Gulf War syndrome," says author Bradley N. Doebbeling, MD, MSc, an epidemiologist and associate professor of internal medicine with the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City. The study was funded by the CDC and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

"What [our study] argues for, I think, is dismissing this idea of a Gulf War syndrome or mystery illness," he tells WebMD. "I think it does show there's an illness occurring in the group, probably not something that's entirely unique, something that we've seen before. It's either a series of medical conditions occurring in that population at an increased rate, or it's what we often call 'medically unexplained symptoms.'"

Doebbeling's study involved more than 3,600 veterans -- all living in Iowa, with approximately half of them having been deployed to the Persian Gulf.

Researchers conducted one-hour telephone interviews with each veteran, asking about symptoms and the degree to which they were bothered by them. To develop their 137-symptom checklist, researchers first talked with numerous veterans and doctors. "We looked at probably the broadest set of symptoms that has been studied so far," says Doebbeling.

Researchers identified three symptom patterns. One set of symptoms included joint stiffness, muscles aches, joint pain, numbness or tingling, headaches, and nausea. Psychological distress symptoms included feeling nervous, worrying, feeling distant or cut off, and depression. Panic-type symptoms included panic and anxiety attacks; a racing, pounding, or skipping heart; attacks of chest pain or pressure; and attacks of sweating.

Deployed veterans reported the same symptoms as nondeployed military. However, significantly more deployed vets reported symptoms -- 90% more, says Doebbeling. And their symptoms covered many areas of the body, as noted in previous studies.

"This high level of such diverse symptoms is difficult to explain as a single illness and fails to support the hypothesis that there is a Gulf War syndrome," Doebbeling tells WebMD. "It would be uncharacteristic of any single illness. But that also doesn't mean that something isn't going on."

However, the symptoms are similar to hard-to-diagnose conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. "Those symptoms are kind of indistinguishable," Doebbeling tells WebMD.

Doebbeling's findings ring true with other studies, Drue Barrett, PhD, tells WebMD. Also one of the Iowa study's authors, Barrett says, "Most studies have found that Gulf War veterans do report more symptoms than those who were not deployed to the Gulf. In most studies, they reported nearly every symptom more often, but when you start to do more objective, physiologic measures, then the differences are not so obvious." Barrett is a research scientist in the CDC's division of environmental hazards and health effects.

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