Post-exertional malaise in veterans with gulf war illness

Int J Psychophysiol. 2020 Jan;147:202-212. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.11.008. Epub 2019 Nov 28.


Post-exertional malaise (PEM) is a potentially debilitating aspect of Gulf War Illness (GWI) that has received limited research attention. The purpose of the present investigation was to determine symptom severity changes following exercise in Veterans with GWI compared to control Veterans without GWI (CO). Sixty-seven Veterans (n = 39 GWI; n = 28 CO) underwent a 30-minute submaximal exercise challenge at 70% of heart rate reserve. Symptom measurements (e.g. fatigue, pain) occurred pre-, immediately post-, and 24-hour post-exercise. Self-reported physical and mental health, and physiological and perceptual responses to exercise were compared between groups using descriptive statistics, independent samples t-tests and repeated measures Analysis of Variance (RM-ANOVA). Post-exertional malaise was modeled using Group by Time (2 × 3) doubly-multivariate, RM-MANOVAs for (1) mood, (2) pain and (3) GWI-related symptoms, respectively (α = 0.05). Data were analyzed for the full sample of Veterans with GWI (n = 39) compared to CO (n = 28) and a subsample of Veterans (n = 18) who endorsed "feeling unwell after physical exercise or exertion" ("PEM endorsers") during screening. Veterans with GWI reported significantly lower physical and mental health. Groups exercised at similar relative exercise intensities, but GWI perceived exercise as more painful and fatiguing. Group-by-Time interactions were not significant for the entire sample for the three PEM models, however limiting the GWI sample to "PEM endorsers" resulted in significant interactions for Pain- and GWI-related PEM models. These results indicate that not all GVs with GWI experience PEM 24 h after exercise, and that more research is needed to determine the extent that exercise worsens symptoms in GWI.

Keywords: Chronic disease; Cognition; Exercise; Fatigue; Pain; Persian Gulf War.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Chronic Disease
  • Combat Disorders / complications
  • Combat Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Fatigue / etiology
  • Fatigue / physiopathology*
  • Gulf War
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain / etiology
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Physical Exertion / physiology*
  • Symptom Flare Up
  • Veterans*