PTSD – Irritable Bowel Syndrome link is no joke for Vets

When Senator Harry Reid requested more funding to the Department of Defense for research on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), it became a comedic punch-line in the news and in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent memoir.

However, the link between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the risk of IBS is a real concern for veterans, according to national medical researchers. The Department of Veterans Affairs has determined that IBS is a disorder that can be classified as a disability if related to military service – though the exact cause of the syndrome is difficult to pinpoint.

“The link between being a veteran and having a higher risk of IBS is unclear, partly because the underlying cause [of IBS] is unclear” says Dr. Phillip Schoenfeld, a University of Michigan medical school professor and expert in gastroenterology, including IBS.

Certainly, stress induced from service during wartime may exacerbate symptoms by inducing chemical and hormonal changes. For example, one research finding is that female veterans suffering from PTSD are much more likely to have IBS than female veterans who don’t have PTSD, says Dr. Schoenfeld, who leads the gastroenterology division at the Ann Arbor VA hospital.

In 2010, Congress did request the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences to begin a comprehensive review of best treatments for chronic multi-symptom illnesses, or CMI, faced by Gulf War veterans. The report confirmed a growing consensus that no “specific causal factor” will be identified for IBS, however “stress and crowded war theater conditions” that may exacerbate the spreading of infections are suggested as triggers for IBS.

Whatever the cause, the correlation between PTSD and IBS is no laughing matter for veterans. “Irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder that really compromises the daily lives of veterans,” Dr. Schoenfeld says.

Schoenfeld further notes that while it is difficult to put a value on what disorders need more research dollars, IBS is not one that should be dismissed as having a negligible impact on veterans’ lives.

Learn more about the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences’ study on CMI illnesses here:

Read more on the issue of PTSD and IBS here:

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