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Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Gulf War Syndrome (GWS)

What They Have In Common

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Updated October 01, 2013

The Persian Gulf War began in 1991, but more than 170,000 veterans still are battling Gulf War syndrome. For 17 years, they battled stigma and disbelief, but finally in late 2008 a congressionally mandated panel concluded that Gulf War syndrome (GWS) is in fact "real" and is not a psychological condition.

Veterans with GWS also are more prone to fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS), as well as to a few other conditions.

What is Gulf War Syndrome?

GWS is a debilitating, multi-symptom illness that, according to researchers, was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals. Many of those chemicals were intended to protect military personnel, such as pesticides against sand flies and other pests and a drug to protect them against nerve gas. Very few of those who developed GWS have gotten better.

For years, GWS was generally considered a result of the stress of combat. However, researchers have discovered that the veterans who developed the condition are more likely to have a genetic mutation that made them less able to tolerate certain chemicals and toxins compared with those who did not develop GWS. The same mutation is linked to some neurological diseases, including ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig's disease). ALS and brain cancer also are more common in people with GWS than in the general population.

Why Do Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Gulf War Syndrome Go Together?

The jury is still out on why GWS apparently predisposes people to FMS and ME/CFS. The conditions all have similar symptoms and include neurological involvement.

Although we now know an important cause of GWS, the underlying processes involved still aren't clear. It's likely that we'll have to learn more about all these conditions before we truly understand their relationship to each other.

Diagnosing GWS is similar to diagnosing FMS and ME/CFS -- self-reported symptoms and tests to exclude other possible causes of those symptoms.

Symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome & Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Symptoms of Gulf War syndrome include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Pain or discomfort related to sexual intercourse
  • Bronchitis
  • Asthma

Of those symptoms, bronchitis, asthma, and pain related to intercourse appear to be unique to GWS.

GWS also is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse.

Treating Gulf War Syndrome

So far, there's no specific treatment regimen for GWS. Current treatments focus on symptom relief, i.e. drugs for depression and pain, as well as psychological counseling for problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.

Some veterans report finding relief from complementary/alternative therapies, including acupuncture, nutrition, supplements, and hypnotherapy.

Gulf War Syndrome Treatment vs. Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Treatment

Because treatment for all three of these conditions focuses on symptom relief and the symptoms are all so similar, it's unlikely that treatment for GWS wouldn't conflict or interfere with treatment for FMS or ME/CFS.

Any time you're being treated for more than one condition, however, it's important to talk to your doctor and pharmacist about possible drug interactions, and to make sure all of your health-care providers are informed about your treatment and management regimen.

Living With Gulf War Syndrome & Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Living with these conditions is difficult at best, and completely disabling at worst. Fortunately, we're learning more about all of them and have a lot of treatment options, including a broad array of drugs and alternative therapies.

Veterans with GWS are eligible for benefits from the Veterans Administration, which can help provide access to proper healthcare and cover the cost. Learn more about VA assistance:

The fact that GWS is now officially recognized as a physiological illness should help remove the social stigma and end disbelief in the medical community, which can be psychologically damaging. The congressional panel on GWS recommended 60-million dollars in annual funding for GWS research. If research is funded at that level, it could provide better treatments in the future. The outlook for veterans with GWS is finally improving.

Sources:

Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. All rights reserved. "Gulf War Syndrome"

Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. "Gulf War and Health, Volume 4"

Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. "Health problems in Persian Gulf War veterans higher due to chemical exposure"

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