The Illness of War: Unique Healthcare Needs of Active Duty Military and Veterans by Dr. Karly Powell

It is estimated that approximately one in five U.S. men and women returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan experience lasting physical and psychological injuries consistent with Post-Deployment Syndrome (PDS).  PDS incorporates all the signs and symptoms experienced as a result of the injury, deprivation, trauma, and stress of combat. While this syndrome is difficult to define, here’s what we know for sure: PDS has a profound and debilitating impact on one’s day-to-day function, our healthcare system is inadequately equipped to deal with the severity of long-term damage, and living with the high level of persistent stress and constant readiness required for war is not sustainable for anyone. While our bodies are well equipped to manage acute stress, living in that state daily for any sustained period of time is not normal and can have significant consequences for our health. Following is an overview of some of the more common manifestations of PDS and how they can be treated using natural medicine.

Insomnia & Fatigue

Difficulty falling or staying asleep, nightmares, daytime fatigue, and poor concentration are some of the most common complaints of soldiers returning from combat.  While these may be a normal reaction to stress, light or inadequate hours of sleep can significantly reduce healing time, as your body does most of its growth and regeneration during deep sleep. In many cases, higher levels of stress hormones coupled with lower levels of normal sleep hormones are to blame.  After identifying your specific imbalances, we can use natural substances to correct hormone imbalances, restore normal diurnal rhythms, and establish restful sleep.

Traumatic Brain Injury & Headaches

Altered brain function secondary to head trauma occurs most often from falls, explosive devices, or motor vehicle accidents. Symptoms range from mild to severe and can include headaches, dizziness, ringing in the ear, fatigue, or impairments in attention and memory; when these symptoms are long lasting, the term “post-concussive syndrome” is used.  After initial stabilization and acute traumas have been resolved, we can use functional, in-office neurological testing to identify which areas of the brain have been harmed and are not functioning at full capacity.  This testing often reveals minor dysfunction or imbalances that cannot be identified on MRI or CAT scans. These can be corrected using 10-30 minutes of rehabilitation exercises daily in combination with targeted dietary and herbal therapies.

Chronic Pain 

Many studies have confirmed that people living with chronic pain or PDS have altered communication between their brain and their area of pain.  This phenomenon is termed central sensitization, which means that your brain is more sensitive to pain in that area compared to your pre-injury state and to other areas of your body. While this can result from a physical trauma to the area, it may also occur secondary to significant stress, trauma, grief, frustration about the inability to complete your duties, or hopelessness about ever getting better. Similar mechanisms also explain the presence of lasting pain after an amputation.  The good news is that in both of these cases, the solution is fairly simple: change the way your brain thinks about your area of pain.  Our nervous system is highly adaptable, changing every 2-3 days in response to it’s input and environment, which means we can change old patterns of pain – and we can do so quickly. Learning about why you have pain and the mechanisms by which it is produced is the first step, and is effective at reducing pain in 1/3rd of people with chronic pain.  Dr. Powell specializes in pain reduction strategies, using hands-on manual therapy and home rehabilitation exercises to reduce the sensitivity of your nervous system and make lasting reductions in pain.

Mood Changes

The silent injuries can sometimes have the most lasting consequences on return to civilian life. Increasing feelings of irritability, anger, depression, anxiety, and slowed thinking are just some of the commonly noted changes.  These mood changes may come with labels like “Adjustment Disorder”, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD), “Generalized Anxiety Disorder”, or a myriad of other complex names and acronyms.  While these diagnostic terms are valuable to understanding your individual symptoms, the underlying cause – and therefore the treatment – are often the same. Most commonly, we see that neurotransmitters, the chemical communicators of your brain, and/or hormone levels are out of balance.  Using specialized testing, we can often identify a physiological cause of the symptoms you experience and use gentle therapies like herbs, nutrients, or bio-identical hormones to correct them. In cases where no biochemical cause is found, functional neurological rehabilitation exercises can be used to identify and correct areas of the brain and nervous system that are not functioning optimally. While more traditional treatments, like behavioral therapy and coping techniques, can be helpful to manage mood changes, full recovery is difficult without addressing any underlying physiological imbalances present.

Hazardous Material Exposure

Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been exposed to an array of potentially hazardous chemical and biological substances, including dust and sand particulate matter, shrapnel, industry solvents, asbestos, PCB’s, chemical warfare agents, and uranium (from military tank armor). Unfortunately, this is not an exhaustive list. Even in those who have recovered from acute effects of these agents, our bodies often harbor these toxic substances in our tissues, resulting in skin disease, respiratory illness, reduced exercise tolerance, fatigue, brain fog, allergies, and frequent colds and flus.  Medical detoxification and, when necessary, chelation of heavy metals, can help your body clear these substances and prevent the long-term consequences of these toxins.

This is certainly not an exhaustive discussion of symptoms that service members experience as a result of combat stress.  But whatever symptoms you experience, we know that refocusing your attention away from the symptoms and towards recovery is a critical first step.  Whether you have a diagnosis of PDS or not, your symptoms are real and may have an underlying physiologic explanation that cannot be detected by conventional labs and imaging. Even if your symptoms have been present for years or are increasing in severity, these patterns are not set in stone.  Our bodies and minds are highly adaptable, and these patterns can be changed.  It’s never too early or too late to take back control of your life.  The best time to start is right now.

We offer a 20% discount off the first office visit (excludes labs and supplements) for all active-duty military. Schedule a free 15-minute consult to see how naturopathic medicine can help with your recovery.