Imagine having recurrent physical symptoms that cause you discomfort, pain, and distress—then being told by the medical establishment that what you see and feel do not add up to a legitimate disease or syndrome.
That’s the experience of countless people convinced they are suffering from a real illness—such as singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who believes she has Morgellons disease, a questionable condition that makes people feel “fibers” or other objects poking out of their skin.
Symptoms include a sensation comparable to insects crawling under the skin, rashes caused by itching, tiredness and difficulty concentration. Some of those with the condition report seeing fibers or stringy material on their skin. However, there is not sufficient evidence to clarify whether it is a skin disorder or a psychological phenomenon.
Morgellons disease is also known as delusional infestation. It’s a divisive condition because some clinicians believe it should be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, while others believe it could be caused by an infectious process in the skin.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark believe tens of thousands of Americans could have the condition. In the first population-based study into delusional infestation, researchers pinpointed 35 cases between 1976 to 2010 in Minnesota’s Olmsted county. The scientists estimate between 27 out of every 100,000 people in the U.S. have delusional infestation.
Mayo Clinic dermatologist Dr. Mark Davis, who authored the study, says, “It’s like aliens have infested their skin.” And when lab tests confirm a patient’s body is not infested with insects, they may attempt to self-medicate in dangerous ways. Mental disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia can trigger the condition, as well as amphetamine use, he said.
A separate paper in the Annals of the Academy of Medicine detailed eight case studies of Chinese patients with delusional infestation, which lay bare the apparent distress of those who have the condition. The majority were female and over the age of 50. Clinicians treated the women with antipsychotics.
Chemical engineering scientist Richard Kuhns (of Oakhurst New Jersey), says: “Someone has got to curate the real news regarding Morgellons. Since I suffered with skin parasites and have been at the forefront of Morgellons research, I believe I can steer patients away from the false claims and give them information that can aid in their recovery.”
Editor’s Note: While Morgellons disease may very well turn out to be psychosomatic, I can remember when doctors said the exact same thing about menstrual cramps.