May 30, 2007 – Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have a wide range of health concerns, including a 55 percent prevalence of mental health issues, reports a study in the May Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).
Dr. Drew A. Helmer and colleagues analyzed the health concerns of 56 veterans, 45 men and 11 women of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Each veteran underwent a comprehensive health evaluation at the War-Related Illness and Injury Study Center, located at the VA New Jersey Health Care System in East Orange, N.J.
Of the 56 participants, 17 were active-duty veterans, average age 28 years, and 39 were reservists, average age 36 years. Average length and time of deployment was eight months and fifteen months respectively.
The evaluations turned up many and varied issues, including an average of four physical health concerns per veteran. Musculoskeletal problems were the most common, followed by ear, nose, and throat (ENT) problems, and gastrointestinal issues. Reservists had more physical health concerns than active-duty personnel – 4.4 versus 3.1.
Fifty-five percent of the veterans had one or more mental health concerns, most commonly posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Reservists had a somewhat higher rate of PTSD than active-duty personnel—48.7 versus 35.3 percent—although the difference was not significant.
Concerns about potentially hazardous exposures were also common – an average of 2.7 per veteran. The most frequent concerns were exposure to smoke from burning trash and to human waste, vaccinations, and depleted uranium (used in munitions). Although few veterans had current health problems related to toxic exposures, they were concerned about the possibility of long-term effects.
There is growing interest in how combat and other deployment experiences affect the health of U.S. military personnel. Routine postdeployment screening programs have provided useful information for policy decisions, “but they do not provide the clinical detail necessary for health care providers to prepare and deliver individualized care to recently deployed service members,” the researchers write.
Dr. Helmer and colleagues call for additional, multidisciplinary services to address the high prevalence and diversity of health concerns among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They suggest that screening for common physical health problems—such as knee pain, back pain, and rhinitis/sinusitis—should be added to current postdeployment screening programs for returning veterans. They also urge health care providers to learn about the possible health effects of potentially hazardous exposures related to deployment, and to allow time to discuss these concerns with returning veterans.
ACOEM (http://www.acoem.org), an international society of 5,000 occupational physicians and other health care professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.