People who were near Ground Zero on 9/11 have experienced headaches for years afterward.
- People who were near the World Trade Center around the 9/11 attacks have had headaches for years.
- Other symptoms are wheezing, shortness of breath, sinus congestion and acid reflux.
- Studying the health effects of disasters will help future first responders.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened nearly a decade ago, but people continue to suffer from the event, both physically and psychologically.
In a new, preliminary study, scientists found that nearly half of people who lived and worked near Ground Zero around the time of the attack have experienced persistent headaches for years afterward.
Scientists still can't say how -- or even if -- the event caused headaches to start, but follow-up research might help emergency responders better deal with future disasters, both natural and man-made.
"Headaches can have a huge impact on the ability to function," said Joan Reibman, medical director of Bellevue Hospital World Trade Center Environmental Health Center "This is a symptom that should not be overlooked."
Ever since two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, responders and people who lived or worked near the area have sought medical help for breathing troubles, gastrointestinal problems, sinus pain, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other complaints.
To better understand how exposure to fumes and dust at the site might have impacted the health of the community, neurologist Sara Crystal investigated the symptoms of more than 750 patients who enrolled at Bellevue's World Trade Center Environmental Health Center, starting in 2006. Patients filled out extensive interviews that included questions about a variety of symptoms, including headaches.
The surveys revealed that 43 percent of patients had experienced headaches in the previous four weeks. None of them had suffered from headache problems before the attack. In the same time period, those patients were also more likely to have been wheezing, experiencing shortness of breath with exercise, and dealing with sinus congestion and gastroesophageal reflux.
"At least four years after the event, people are experiencing headaches that started after 9/11," said Crystal, of New York University. She will present her results at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Toronto in April.
"This is really the first step," she said. "We're just identifying headache as a big issue in these patients."
Further research will have to zero-in on what types of headaches are involved and why they're happening. Previous studies suggest that headaches are common after disasters, Crystal said. So far, it's not clear why.
One possibility is that headaches in 9/11 survivors are a result of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are known triggers. Respiratory symptoms and sinus issues could play a role. It's also possible that patients inhaled toxic particles of pollution released in the buildings' collapse, which got into their blood streams and affected their brains.
Even with an accumulating body of evidence linking disasters to physical and mental symptoms, though, it is extremely challenging to figure out exactly how events like the World Trade Center collapse affect our health, said epidemiologist Julie Herbstman, of Columbia University in New York. In her work, she has been following kids whose moms were pregnant on 9/11.
Once a disaster has occurred, Herbstman said, scientists don't have time to carefully design studies that can compare the health of the population both before and after the event. In a situation like 9/11 or the recent earthquake in Haiti, it might also be impossible to find a group of people who were not exposed to the disaster to see whether their symptoms are any different from an exposed group.
"In this case, who is unexposed?" Herbstman said. "Especially in a psychological sense, it may be nobody. These are just some of complications you have trying to do this type of research."
In the aftermath of a disaster, immediate recovery efforts often take center stage. Studies like this emphasize how important it is for people to protect themselves from long-term consequences to their health.