April Is IBS Awareness Month: Calling Attention to a Serious Issue for Returning Veterans

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High numbers of veterans returning from the Gulf War regions of Iraq andAfghanistan are experiencing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders.

This prompted the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) last August to implement a new rule for the purposes of assessing disability benefits. Veterans deployed during the Gulf War who now suffer with a functional GI disorder are presumed to have developed the condition as a result of their military service. IFFGD (the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders) is advocating for more and better ways to support these veterans.           

"Otherwise healthy individuals are experiencing digestive issues that can be debilitating. These issues began during deployment and then continue long after they have returned home," said Nancy Norton, president and founder of IFFGD.

"These conditions disrupt veterans' regular daily activities and, sometimes, their efforts to return to a normal life."

No single cause of IBS and other functional GI disorders has been identified.     

"Long-term or repeated exposure to high levels of stress can cause physical changes in the brain and the intestines," explainedBrennan Spiegel, a medical advisor to IFFGD and Associate Professor of Medicine at the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System, Division of Digestive Diseases, UCLA School of Medicine and Division of Gastroenterology.

"Military personnel also often are exposed to gastrointestinal infections from food or water and other environmental factors," Dr. Spiegel said. "These combined factors could trigger the long-term debilitating GI symptoms we are seeing in returning veterans."

IFFGD is supporting veterans who have been affected by IBS and other functional GI disorders through an awareness and advocacy campaign. This effort aims to educate and promote improved care and increased research. Veterans are helping advocate for more support. Their stories illustrate the need for more information about IBS and functional GI disorders and improved care for those afflicted.

Goals include:

  • Increasing awareness and education among care providers to encourage prompt, accurate diagnoses and treatments.
  • Making more facilities available to treat soldiers with these disorders.
  • Increasing research that will help better understand these conditions and their relationship to military service.

IBS occurs in approximately 10 to 15 percent of the general population. It is characterized by a group of chronic symptoms that include abdominal pain along with constipation and/or diarrhea. Other intestinal symptoms may include bloating or nausea. While almost everyone suffers from intestinal symptoms from time to time, IBS symptoms return again and again, often without warning. There are no cures for IBS, but some treatments can ease its symptoms. A diagnosis by a healthcare professional and education about the disorder are important first steps.

If you want to help IFFGD and the Digestive Health Alliance (DHA) support veterans, email iffgd@iffgd.org or phone 414.964.1799.

More information about IBS is available at aboutIBS.org.