Is there a Gulf War Syndrome? Searching for syndromes by factor analysis of symptoms

JAMA. 1997 Jan 15;277(3):215-22.


Objective: To search for syndromes in Persian Gulf War veterans.

Participants: Two hundred forty-nine (41%) of the 606 Gulf War veterans of the Twenty-fourth Reserve Naval Mobile Construction Battalion living in 5 southeastern states participated; 145 (58%) had retired from service, and the rest were still serving in the battalion.

Design: Participants completed a standardized survey booklet measuring the anatomical distributions or characteristics of each symptom, a booklet measuring wartime exposures, and a standard psychological personality assessment inventory. Two-stage factor analysis was used to disentangle ambiguous symptoms and identify syndromes.

Main outcome measures: Factor analysis-derived syndromes.

Results: Of 249 participants, 175 (70%) reported having had serious health problems that most attributed to the war, and 74 (30%) reported no serious health problems. Principal factor analysis yielded 6 syndrome factors, explaining 71% of the variance. Dichotomized syndrome indicators identified the syndromes in 63 veterans (25%). Syndromes 1 ("impaired cognition," characterized by problems with attention, memory, and reasoning, as well as insomnia, depression, daytime sleepiness, and headaches), 2 ("confusion-ataxia," characterized by problems with thinking, disorientation, balance disturbances, vertigo, and impotence), and 3 ("arthro-myo-neuropathy," characterized by joint and muscle pains, muscle fatigue, difficulty lifting, and extremity paresthesias) represented strongly clustered symptoms; whereas, syndromes 4 ("phobia-apraxia"), 5 ("fever-adenopathy"), and 6 ("weakness-incontinence") involved weaker clustering and mostly overlapped syndromes 2 and 3. Veterans with syndrome 2 were 12.5 times (95% confidence interval, 3.5-44.8) more likely to be unemployed than those with no health problems. A psychological profile, found in 48.4% of those with the syndromes, differed from posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, somatoform disorder, and malingering.

Conclusion: These findings support the hypothesis that clusters of symptoms of many Gulf War veterans represent discrete factor analysis-derived syndromes that appear to reflect a spectrum of neurologic injury involving the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Apraxias
  • Ataxia
  • Cognition Disorders
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Fever
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Lymphatic Diseases
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscular Diseases
  • Persian Gulf Syndrome* / diagnosis
  • Persian Gulf Syndrome* / epidemiology
  • Phobic Disorders
  • Psychological Tests
  • Veterans / psychology