What are the Common Health Problems Facing Veterans?
The biggest study in mental health risk that has ever been done on the US military showed that many of the soldiers suffer at least one form of the mental condition and the rates are higher compared to the records with civilians. The ones that are returning from combat come with a wealth of health problems that need to be addressed. While others are easily treated, the most challenging that the medical field has to face is the mental health issues. They have even suggested that the military personnel does need a specialized health care needs because it is something different from the numbers shown with the results with civilians.
When it comes to physical health issues, the most common couldn’t be classified in a single disorder. It includes symptoms that aren’t too specific such as pain, fatigue and some cognitive disturbances such as concentration and memory problems.
What makes this interesting is that these all happen after all the wars have happened? Experts see that it is a reflection of the intensity and force of the situation. They are hurting, worn out and it is a bit hard for them to think straight.
Below are the common health conditions that veterans experience years after they faced combat:
According to the research conducted by American Heart Association, it showed that soldiers exposure to nerve gases like sarin, a kind where it causes convulsions followed by death in the battlefield, may trigger a long-term damage to the heart among Gulf-War veterans. The damage left can include abnormalities in the heart rhythm, enlarged left ventricle or the reduction of the heart’s pumping strength.
Musculoskeletal pain and injuries
More than half of the post-deployment visits among the veterans have shown that they complained about the lingering pain from their shoulders, knees, necks or backs. According to one study in August in Journal of Pain, around 100,000 veterans from the Gulf War almost 20 years ago have shown that they suffer chronic muscle pain. Past research showed that sustained and regular exercise could aid in reducing the pain, which is a recommendation by doctors to avoid the disability from happening in the long years ahead.
It is a rule that military personnel must abide by that they are given the routine vaccinations before they are deployed. However, veterans still suffer from particular infections that civilians rarely experience where the vaccines are not even available. It is taken from the records belonging from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. These include brucellosis, which can persist for many years; Coxiella burnetii, a case that when goes chronic, can cause inflammation to the heart; and campylobacter jejuni, which triggers fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
A parasitic disease called leishmaniasis is triggered by a bite made by a sand fly that is native to the Middle East. It is a very brutal condition experienced among veterans. The ones infected go through weight loss, muscle pain, headaches, fevers; and even affects their liver and spleen. When left untreated, it can be fatal.
Penetrating injuries, especially around the groin area that was acquired during battle are sometimes treated only when after a life-threatening injury has already been dealt with, according to a urologist from Medical College of Georgia Dr. Arthur Smith. Injuries sustain to the genitalia, kidneys, bladder, and ureters need complex surgery, but the complications sometimes arise since treatments must be put off.
Traumatic Brain Injury
Shortened to TBI, this is sometimes brought by a jolt or blow to the head, which interferes with brain function. It has then been considered as a signature wound when fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, based on the records of National Academy of Sciences. Various combat-related situations such as blast exposures can put the service members at higher risk for enduring a TBI than the civilians.
The common effects of TBI include various cognitive issues such as language disabilities, shorter attention span and the lack of ability to processing information. Veterans also suffer from irritability, lack of motivation, depression, memory loss, headaches and PTSD. Around 70 to 80 percent of the combat deaths are related to blast exposure. And among the survivors, 20 percent of them have sustained a mild concussion. As for the result with that, it is difficult to ascertain if there are going to be any long-term effects.
Mental health conditions
PTSD is the most publicized health condition faced by soldiers after they face combat, but they have other mental health condition that they have to face as well, which is mostly a result of the trauma of the war. A study from the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that out of 1 in 10 veterans from the Iraq war develop serious mental disorders, including depression, alcohol abuse, and violent behavior. The same study also showed that depression or PTSD has seriously impaired the daily functioning of 8.5 to 14 percent among these veterans.
PTSD is associated with a development of physical conditions in the long run among veterans. The Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s researchers reported that 54 percent of the veterans diagnosed with PTSD also go through sleep apnea, which only 20 percent of the PTSD patients among the general population suffers. There is also a greater risk among vets who have PTSD – developing dementia. It is taken from one study in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD among veterans is far more common, even more, compared to the general populace with PTSD. While the symptoms can develop in the days or hours following the traumatic event, the symptoms don’t surface after months or even years after soldiers have returned from their deployment. The symptoms differ from one veteran to another, but they fall in one of the four symptom clusters:
- Extreme avoidance of things that remind the patient of the traumatic event. It includes avoiding people, thoughts, places or situations that automatically reminds them of the bad memories. Withdrawing from family and friends and even losing interest in activities done daily are common symptoms.
- Intrusive, recurrent reminders of their traumatic experience. It includes nightmares, distressing thoughts, and flashbacks that make them feel like the whole situation is happening again. They experience extreme physical and emotional reactions that remind them of the trauma such as uncontrollable shaking, heart palpitations and panic attacks.
- Negative changes in mood and thoughts, like negative beliefs that are exaggerated about themselves or of the world. They also have these persistent feelings of shame, guilt, or shame. They have diminished ability in experiencing positive emotions.
- They are always on guard, and they get emotionally reactive and jumpy. Anger indicates it, irritability, reckless behavior, trouble concentrating, difficulty sleeping and hypervigilance.
PTSD and Drug Abuse among veterans
Some veterans found a way to cope with their PTSD and the symptoms they go through by drinking heavily, smoking too much or using drugs. It can be a combination of all. People that get into these things with PTSD will have more problems after that. Even if someone is not into alcohol before the traumatic event, they have a very high possibility of getting into alcohol and drug abuse when they get PTSD.
In the long run, the overuse of substances tends to lead to SUD or Substance Use Disorder. The treatment that SUD sufferers go through must be the same with PTSD and must be treated at the same time to achieve a successful recovery. The good news is that the treatment for SUD and PTSD works, particularly when they are co-occurring.
Recovery and Treatment
The first step that veterans have to do is to exercise to improve their health. It is to burn off all the adrenaline, release the endorphins and improve the mood. When focusing on on the body and how it feels as the veterans exercise, it will help “unstuck” the nervous system.
- A rhythmic exercise is recommended and one that engages in both legs and arms like swimming, basketball, running or even something like dancing. It will divert your focus from your thoughts when you move to focusing on the body and how it feels.
- Take notice of the sensation from your feet when it hits the ground or try to feel the rhythm of breathing or even the feeling of the wind as it touches the skin
- Try exercising daily for at least 30 minutes. If you want it easier, divide 30 minutes into three parts in one day. It will still help.
- If you want more options that let you focus on your body movements, try martial arts, weight training, boxing or rock climbing.
Regulating the nervous system
PTSD can give you that feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. But the body has more control over the nervous system than you have yet to realize. Whenever you feel anxious, agitated or when you go out of control, the following tips can aid in changing your arousal system and resulting to calmness.
- Mindful breathing – whenever you find yourself in a situation that irritates or annoys you, all you need to do is take 60 breaths and place your focus on each of them.
- Reconnect emotionally – if you reconnect with those uncomfortable emotions you feel without feeling overwhelmed, you will be surprised at how big of a difference it can be with your ability in managing stress, balancing moods and even take over control of your own life.
- Sensory input – certain smells, loud noises or even simply the feel of sand in the clothes can easily transport you back to the place where you felt the traumatic event, like the combat zone itself. Through the same sensory input that takes you back to your trauma, it can also calm you down. Each person responds differently, so find what works best for you. Go back to the time during your deployment – what are the things that bring comfort to you as the day ends? Were you looking at the photos of your family? Are you listening to your favorite song? Or the smell of that particular soap brand? You might even find it comforting petting an animal, too.
There are some cases wherein PTSD is so severe in veterans that they need to have professional treatment.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy or counseling – this mainly involves gradual exposure that reminds you of that event and replacing such distorted thoughts with the more balanced image.
- Medication – the most common given to veterans is antidepressants. Medications can only help you feel more comfortable and calm, but it doesn’t treat you from what caused PTSD.
- EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – this involves the elements with CBT, but with eye movements or much other rhythmic stimulations that will help you get out of the zone that made you stuck.
As mentioned above, antidepressants are prescribed to veterans with PTSD. These are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). The most commonly used and most effective anti-depressants are the following:
- Venlafaxine (Effexor)
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
- Fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
Helping veterans’ treatment with PTSD
When someone close to you returns from their military service diagnosed with PTSD, it can affect your relationship greatly, even your family life. You will be expecting to take on the bigger role in the tasks with the household and even have to deal with the frustration having a loved one that will not open or even deal with the anger or any other disturbing behavior they display.
However, knowing that they have PTSD, it is important to take note that you do not have to take their behavior personally. Most of the disturbing behavior they are showing are symptoms linked with PTSD. It doesn’t have anything to your relationship at all.
You should also avoid pressuring your loved one in talking. A lot of veterans suffering from PTSD find it difficult to talk about what they have experienced in the battlefield. Just let him know that you are there ready to talk about it when they feel like they want to share it with you. Understanding them is the comfort they need, not with what you say.