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Gulf War Syndrome Still a Mystery

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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.

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