Faculty Articles

Post-Traumatic Stress Impact on Health Outcomes in Gulf War Illness

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BMC Psychology








Background: Gulf War Illness (GWI) is a chronic, multi-symptomatic disorder affecting an estimated 25–32% of the returning military veterans of the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War. GWI presents with a wide range of symptoms including fatigue, muscle pain, cognitive problems, insomnia, rashes and gastrointestinal issues and continues to be a poorly understood illness. This heterogeneity of GWI symptom presentation complicates diagnosis as well as the identification of effective treatments. Defining subgroups of the illness may help alleviate these complications. Our aim is to determine if GWI can be divided into distinct subgroups based on PTSD symptom presentation.

Methods: Veterans diagnosed with GWI (n = 47) and healthy sedentary veteran controls (n = 52) were recruited through the Miami Affairs (VA) Medical Health Center. Symptoms were assessed via the RAND short form health survey (36), the multidimensional fatigue inventory, and the Davidson trauma scale. Hierarchal regression modeling was performed on measures of health and fatigue with PTSD symptoms as a covariate. This was followed by univariate analyses conducted with two separate GWI groups based on a cut-point of 70 for their total Davidson Trauma Scale value and performing heteroscedastic t-tests across all measures.

Results: Overall analyses returned two symptom-based subgroups differing significantly across all health and trauma symptoms. These subgroups supported PTSD symptomatology as a means to subgroup veterans. Hierarchical models showed that GWI and levels of PTSD symptoms both impact measures of physical, social, and emotional consequences of poor health (ΔR2 = 0.055–0.316). However, GWI appeared to contribute more to fatigue measures. Cut-point analysis retained worse health outcomes across all measures for GWI with PTSD symptoms compared to those without PTSD symptoms, and healthy controls. Significant differences were observed in mental and emotional measures.

Conclusions: Therefore, this research supports the idea that comorbid GWI and PTSD symptoms lead to worse health outcomes, while demonstrating how GWI and PTSD symptoms may uniquely contribute to clinical presentation.



Peer Reviewed