Common Health Issues Veterans Face
Sometimes the wounds of war run far deeper than what is evident on the surface. A soldier may appear perfectly healthy upon leaving the service only to have mental or physical health problems develop months or even years later. It is important for spouses, parents and other veteran caregivers to take note of any unusual symptoms or behavioral changes and seek appropriate diagnosis and treatment when needed.
PTSD, chemical exposure, infectious diseases, traumatic brain injury and noise and vibration exposure are five of the most common health issues veterans face. Review the following sections to learn more about these conditions and how to treat them.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in veterans after they experience a frightening, dangerous or shocking event. Naturally, war is full of such experiences, although not everyone who goes through them will develop PTSD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD symptoms include:
- Feeling tense or easily startled.
- A persistent feeling of being on-edge that leads to angry outbursts.
- Sleeping difficulties, including sleep apnea and having trouble going to sleep or staying asleep.
- Depression, including a loss of interest in enjoyable activities and going out.
Treatment for PTSD is highly individualized and may include psychotherapy, medication or both. Medications can include antidepressants and sleep aids. Exercise is also beneficial to those suffering from PTSD because it reduces stress hormones and promotes healthy sleep. Veterans with PTSD can also benefit from support groups and opening up to supportive friends or family.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of chemical herbicides on vegetation, not realizing that the chemical exposure could cause illness in soldiers decades later. The American Heart Association found that exposure to sarin and other nerve agents had left Gulf War veterans with long-term heart damage. Cancers related to chemical exposure include melanomas, leukemia, Hodgkin’s Disease, and prostate and respiratory cancers. Veterans who know or suspect that they were exposed to chemical agents should seek medical advice if any of the following unusual symptoms occur:
- Acne-like rashes
- Unexplained headaches
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Nerve problems, including numbness, tingling or muscle weakness
- Symptoms of cancer, which can include fever, fatigue, weight loss, localized pain, skin changes, changes in bladder function or bowel habits, and lumps under the skin
Treatment for chemical exposure depends on the diagnosis and whether the associated condition is being controlled with medication, surgery or chemotherapy.
Although military personnel receive vaccinations before deployment, they are still susceptible to diseases for which vaccines are not yet available. These include parasitic diseases such as malaria and Leishmaniasis, which are caused by insect bites received in hot climates. Bacterial diseases that disproportionately affect veterans include the fever and diarrhea-inducing campylobacter jejuni, the heart-inflaming Coxiella burnetii, and brucellosis – a febrile disease causing muscular pain and profuse sweating.
Some of these diseases can surface months or years after the veteran’s deployment ends. Veterans who have deployed to other countries should see a doctor for unusual or persistent symptoms, including fever, unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain, muscle pain or weakness, and diarrhea. Treatment usually includes administering anti-parasitic or antibiotic medication, along with pain management and rest.
Traumatic Brain Injury
Referred to as the “signature injury” of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) results from blast exposure or other jolts to the head. Common signs of TBI include cognitive problems, such as a short attention span, language disabilities and an inability to process information. Other notable effects are headaches, memory loss, lack of motivation, irritability, anxiety and depression.
When TBI symptoms linger or surface well after the injury occurred, rehabilitative care can include physical, psychiatric and occupational therapy tailored to address the individual’s needs.
Noise and Vibration Exposure
Many veterans have experienced harmful noise and vibration exposure. Those who worked with heavy weapons and gunfire, or in aircraft or engine rooms, are often exposed to noise levels high enough to cause permanent hearing loss or impairment. Symptoms of acoustic trauma include persistent buzzing or ringing in the ears and an inability to hear as well as one used to. Unfortunately, no current treatments exist for acoustic trauma, but promising stem cell research is underway.
Veterans who worked with machinery could have been exposed to excessive vibrations, resulting in irreversible pain or numbness in the back and extremities. Treatments include painkillers and drugs that open up the blood vessels that were closed by excessive vibration exposure.