Medical Conditions That Don’t Really Exist

Perhaps saying that the following medical conditions “don’t exist” is a bit overly simplistic, but I needed something short for the title.   There are a number of conditions which large numbers of people claim to have but which the scientific  consensus and the weight of evidence indicates do not exist as an actual discrete condition with an organic cause.   That’s not to say that people don’t actually suffer the symptoms of these conditions, because some clearly do, but for those who do suffer the symptoms, their symptoms are either entirely psychosomatic or may be other disorders that have been misdiagnosed.

The umbrella term for physical symptoms reported as the result of a mental disorder or delusion is somatoform disorder.   Somatoform disorders can be difficult to treat when the person is insistent that their condition is “real” in the physical sense.   The most effective treatments for somatoform disorders are cognitive behavioral therapy and antipathetic medications, but some may be very unreceptive to the very suggestion that such measures be taken, even becoming hostile.

Those who present the symptoms of somatoform disorders are commonly prone to delusional hypochondriasis.  Anyone who has interacted with a hypochondriac knows that it’s a very tough thing to deal with.  In many cases, it can be hard to figure out to draw the line between hypochondria simply being a personality trait of a self-absorbed individual versus when it becomes a real mental illness.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders make it clear that a somatoform condition is not the same as malingering.   Malingering is defined as “fabricating or exaggerating the symptoms of mental or physical disorders,” and is usually done for a secondary gain, often for sympathy or attention.   In reality, however, the line between somatoform and malingering is not always as well defined.   Many with somatoform disorders manifest a need for attention or sympathy which may result in a self-delusional condition that fulfills the desire to be a victim.  The line between what is conscious and subconscious is also prone to being blurred, especially when a person has a great deal riding on a delusion.

There are also circumstances where the condition and the symptoms seen in patients are very real, but the condition they are attributed to is false. For example the condition “shell shock” was believed to be cause the symptoms seen in World War I veterans, when really the symptoms were not related to the shock of shelling at all.

Electrosensitivity – (Also known as electrohypersensitivity, Electromagnetic hypersensitivity, EHS) This condition is allegedly the sensitivity to non-ionizing radiation, including radio frequency energy, inductive fields and microwaves. Like many of these conditions, it has a number of general symptoms that are highly subjective and rarely produce observable physical changes. These include body pain, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, skin pain, itch, tinnitus.

Also, like many somatoform conditions, there is very little, if any, consistency in the claims of causes and symptoms. Some insist that the syndrome makes them sensitive to both radio frequency emissions and to the low frequency fields produced by alternating-current electricity. Others claim that the problem is limited to uhf and microwave emissions, such as mobile phones, wireless networking and other devices of this type. Still others seem to feel their condition is only triggered (or is worst triggered) by 3G and 4G devices that use advanced digital modulation. Some seem to believe that infrastructure, such as cell towers, are the problem, even when they are at distances that make the total field emissions similar to ambient levels.

Similarly, the effective treatments reported are inconsistent. Some claim that various charms or pendants can improve their condition, despite these devices violating the laws of physics. Others insist that shielded clothing or Faraday cages are the only relief. Many even seem to believe that Faraday cages reduce their symptoms from low-frequency electromagnetic energy, even-though Faraday cages are not generally effective at blocking this kind of energy.

Not surprisingly, repeated Provocation and case-control Studies have found that those who claim to have this condition are not capable of detecting electromagnetic radiation any better than would be expected by random chance.

One review of the avaliable study data stated:

There was no evidence that EHS individuals could detect presence or absence of RF-EMF better than other persons. There was little evidence that short-term exposure to a mobile phone or base station causes symptoms based on the results of eight randomized trials investigating 194 EHS and 346 non-EHS individuals in a laboratory. Some of the trials provided evidence for the occurrence of nocebo effects. In population based studies an association between symptoms and exposure to RF-EMF in the everyday environment was repeatedly observed. This review showed that the large majority of individuals who claims to be able to detect low level RF-EMF are not able to do so under double-blind conditions. If such individuals exist, they represent a small minority and have not been identified yet. The available observational studies do not allow differentiating between biophysical from EMF and nocebo effects.

The condition appears to have been invented in Denmark in the mid 1990’s. It began to go mainstream in 1995 with the “Second Copenhagen Conference on Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity.” Curiously, there is very little information on the “First Copenhagen Conference on Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity.” Presumably, the “Second” conference would have been preceded by a “First” conference, but it is only mentioned in passing on websites about this alleged condition.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity – Before there was EHS, there was MCS.   In the 1980’s and early 1990’s , before wireless technology was as ubiquitous, MCS was more in vogue.  However, many still claim to have the non-existent condition, and not surprisingly, there’s a considerable amount of overlap between EHS and MCS.   Those who claim to have the condition say that all manner of “chemicals” set them off, with these chemicals generally being of the man-made variety.

Of course, those who understand chemistry realize that any substance is a chemical.   Chemicals that do cause allergies are most often those which are biological in origin and have complex structures.   However, for MCS, it’s generally chemicals which are generally perceived as artificial, especially those which have a strong “chemical-like” oder.

Studies have indicated that those who claim to have MCS do not respond to chemical stimuli which do not have a scent, but respond almost universally when stimuli had a scent or where there are other indicators that “chemicals” are present.   Skin tests, such as are used to determine the presence of true allergies also do not indicate the condition has an organic basis.   As such, all credible scientific bodies consider MCS to be most likely idiopathic in origin.

Morgellons -The invention of the condition “Morgellons” can be traced to one person and one incident.  In 2001, Mary Leitao, a woman with no scientific background began to insist that her sons were suffering from a skin condition that had not previously been described by medicine. She pulled “fibers” from their skin and examined them under an eight dollar toy microscope. She then declared that she had discovered a new and as yet uncatalogued skin condition, characterized by strange fibers extruded from the skin and a constant feeling of small vermin crawling just under the skin surface. She named the condition after an obscure 17th century reference in a letter by Thomas Browne.

Had it not been for the internet, a crackpot like Leitao would probably have gone nowhere with these claims, but thanks to information technology, self-diagnosis and conspiracy theories, a community of self-proclaimed sufferers has arisen and so has a cottage industry of snakeoil products to treat the condition. All examinations by scientific and medical researchers have found zero evidence that the condition exists. Instead, it appears to have all the markings of a known condition called delusional parasitosis.

Those who say they have the condition can’t seem to agree on what it is. Some say that they have bugs crawling under their skin while others state that they only feel like there are bugs, but that’s part of the condition. Most manifest “legions” and sores on their skin, although this is most likely caused by constant picking. The online community has strongly encouraged those who believe they have the condition to avoid mainstream medical care, often citing a conspiracy of denial. This goes along with claims that the condition is caused by chemtrails, nano-machines or some other grandiose conspiracy.

This topic was covered here before.

Shell Shock – After the First World War, a number of soldiers returned home suffering from a variety of symptoms which made it difficult to return to normal society. These included panic attacks, insomnia, extreme anxiety, depression, fatigue, extreme sensitivity to being startled, mood swings and other acute conditions. These symptoms had been observed in previous conflict, but it was not until World War I that they were seen in such huge numbers of veterans.

The prevailing hypothesis at the time was that these were the result of the concussions caused by bombs or shelling and that the extreme vibrations, loud noise and bursts of pressure had somehow unsettled the nervous system of soldiers. Various treatments were proposed and tried. Some of these included isolation in quite environments, to allow “nerves to settle down” while others even included the idea that sufferers needed to be “shocked back to normal,” sometimes by electrical currents. The most common treatments were disciplinary. It was believed that strict discipline was necessary to force the veterans to pull themselves together.

Around this time, modern psychology was in its infancy, and some did begin to recognize that these conditions were caused by mental trauma and the extreme anxiety of combat. However, this remained a minority opinion for many years.

Modern medical science recognizes that the symptoms shown in combat veterans are not the result of shell concussions and thus the term “shell shock” is considered to be inaccurate and antiquated. “Combat stress reaction” is used as an umbrella term for the mental, emotional and social concequences of combat. These include acute stress reaction and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is also recognized that the reason for the high rates during the First World War were not due to the use of explosive shells, but rather due to the nature of trench warfare, which results in long periods under stress, limited sleep and the constant threat of death. As many as 10% of those who fought in European trenches were killed, more than twice the mortality of Second World War ground infantry.

Fan Death – This supposed condition appears to be entirely confined to the nation of South Korea.   It is believed that sleeping with a fan in a room with the doors and windows closed can cause one to die, either by the fan “using up all the oxygen” or by some other mechanism.  It is not entirely clear whether it is always fatal or whether it can result in a “near-fan-death” experience.   In reality, it’s never fatal because it does not exist.  Despite complete lack of evidence, it is taken fairly seriously in the country even eliciting a government response.

One  mechanism proposed is hyperthermia(overheating).   A person stuck in a closed room during a heat wave could be susceptible to overheating.  A fan would not actually contribute to this effect, but it has been suggested that it could cause someone to have a false sense of security, believing that the fan would keep them cool, when it does not actually reduce the temperature.   This is quite a stretch, since even with a fan, a person would experience considerable physical discomfort before dying from hyperthermia and would be unlikely to simply lay down and die from heat, although this may happen with some who are elderly or in poor health to begin with.

This topic has been covered here before.

Gulf War Syndrome – After the first Gulf War of 1991, a number of combat veterans began to report a variety of abnormal health problems. The most common complains were non-specific symptoms such as chronic headache, fatigue and memory problems. However, a small subset of those who reported illnesses suffered from much more serious conditions, including organ failure and birth defects in children conceived after returning from the Gulf.

These conditions were collectively dubbed “Gulf War Syndrome.”

There is absolutely no doubt that many veterans of the Gulf War do have legitimate medical issues and many do indeed suffer from conditions that may be related to their service. However, they do not appear to be related to a single “syndrome” and do not appear to be specific to the Gulf War or to any single cause. Indeed, a studies of veterans found that there was no increased hospitalization or mortality in Gulf War vets over other military service personnel. However, there have been some small, but statistically significant increases in a few areas, including certain birth defects and car accidents.

The avaliable data is compelling in indicating that there is no single “Gulf War Syndrome.” The vast majority of veterans who served during the 1991 conflict remain in good health. Those who do suffer medical conditions are not all experiencing the same condition. Many are likely suffering from conditions unrelated to their service, while others may still be experiencing the health concequences of the Middle Eastern battlefields, including stress, post traumatic stress disorder, combat fatigue and exposure to substances ranging from burning oil well fires to incinerated chemical weapons dumps.

Those veterans who are experiencing health problems do deserve care and treatment, but lumping them all together and declaring it a mysterious syndrome does them no service. Gulf War Syndrome was created for political reasons and survives for political reasons.