Irritable Bowel Syndrome in U.S. Veterans

U.S. Veterans who deployed in foreign countries and participated in active combat may develop long-term physical and psychological problems. Functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGDs), such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), are emerging in some veterans of more recent conflicts.

Most of the research on lingering illnesses in veterans focused on those from the Gulf War, but further information is coming out regarding health problems in those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Family greeting returning soldier outdoors
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Chronic Symptoms of Post-Deployment Health Problems

Some veterans, both men, and women suffer from a wide variety of ongoing and inexplicable health problems. Chronic issues reported by veterans include:

  • Abnormal weight loss
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Menstrual disorders
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Indigestion
  • Insomnia
  • Memory and other neurological problems
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Psychological disorders
  • Respiratory problems
  • Sleep disturbance

IBS and Gulf War Syndrome

Are you familiar with the term "Gulf War Syndrome?" The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) calls it “medically unexplained illnesses.”

The VA now officially recognizes 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:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Functional abdominal pain
  • Functional dyspepsia
  • IBS

The causes of the aforementioned symptoms have yet to be determined.

The Link Between IBS and Military Service

Ongoing research focuses on post-infectious IBS (IBS-PI) because those stationed in foreign lands are at high risk for travelers' diarrhea, foodborne illness, and other forms of infectious gastroenteritis. Your 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 and remains in place for a few years following the initial illness.

Additionally, there is a heightened risk for IBS-PI 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 may contribute to the increased risk of developing IBS, including:

  • Traumatic combat experiences
  • The ongoing fear of being harmed
  • Being far from home

Veterans Benefits for IBS Diagnosis

The VA recognizes IBS as a disabling condition eligible for healthcare benefits and disability compensation if you served in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, or Afghanistan. If you suspect your IBS is a result of your military service, you should be eligible for a free health assessment, as well as ongoing healthcare services, at your local Veterans Health Administration center.

If you believe that your IBS prevents you from engaging in gainful employment, you may be eligible for disability benefits. For a comprehensive overview of military disability benefits, see the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.

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Article Sources
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  1. US Department of Veterans Affairs. War related illness and injury study center. Irritable bowel syndrome.

  2. US Department of Veterans Affairs. Presumptive disability benefits.

  3. US Department of Veterans Affairs. Gulf war veterans.

Additional Reading