There was a time in history when nearly every medical condition recognized today was an unidentified mystery. Rabies victims in Europe inspired stories of the holy water-fearing undead and citizens of Salem suffering from Ergot poisoning were hanged for witchcraft, long before medicine had a name and a treatment for either malady. As medical research and happy scientific accidents led to discoveries like Germ Theory and penicillin, our ability to identify and address common health concerns grew.
Although we have come a long way since the days of humor balancing and unnecessary bloodlettings, there is still a lot that the healthcare field doesn’t know about the complexity of the human body or its response to our ever-changing environment. In fact, some of the conditions that we would never second guess today were dismissed by the medical community less than a century ago. A few of them may surprise you.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the field of medicine began to explore the concept of psychosomatic illness – physical illness that is initiated and/or exacerbated by psychological factors like stress. In 1950, Franz Alexander published a groundbreaking text in the area of psychosomatic medicine, identifying several disorders he felt were particularly psychosomatic in nature that were referred to as the “holy seven”.
Asthma, along with disorders like peptic ulcers and eczema, was thought to be a disorder that was largely psychological in nature. Until the wider accessibility of steroid inhalers in the 1960s, one common treatment for asthma was psychoanalysis, assuming that childhood trauma or poor emotional regulation were primarily to blame for the bronchial spasms.
Modern medicine recognizes that psychological distress can lead to an asthma attack, but current theories on the disorder are more pathological in nature. While Alexander’s work in recognizing the mind-body connection was a positive shift toward more holistic medical approaches, many of his “holy seven” psychosomatic illnesses have not stood the test of time quite as well.
Lyme Disease (1979)
Although symptoms of Lyme Disease were first identified in an 1883 German case report and the characteristic bull’s eye rash was connected to tick bites by a Swedish dermatologist in 1909, the medical community did not know what to name the isolated patients who suffered from unexplained joint pain and neurological problems.
After being dismissed by her local physician, a Lyme, CT woman’s complaints about pain affecting her entire household drew the attention of researchers from Yale. After uncovering 51 cases in the area, the lead investigator erroneously named the cluster of symptoms “Lyme arthritis”, believing it to be a form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Two years later the bacteria responsible for Lyme Disease was identified, and the infection received the moniker it has today.
Unfortunately for the growing number of Lyme Disease sufferers, the confusion surrounding Lyme Disease has persisted. Because of errors in the recommendation of diagnostic tests, many patients with Lyme Disease lived with the symptoms for years, and others may still be dealing with the aftermath of an illness their doctor denies they have.
It may surprise you to know that one of the most popular “all in your head” chronic pain conditions was actually recognized as a physical illness by the American Medical Association in 1987. Despite this acknowledgement and the description of diagnostic criteria in 1990, there is still some skepticism about the legitimacy of this pain disorder.
Descriptions of fibromyalgia have appeared as early as 1824, and the relationship between weather conditions and the disease were noted in the early 1900s and the disorder was named “fibrositis”, an assumption that the pain patients felt was a result of inflammation. In 1976 the cluster of tender points was renamed fibromyalgia, although the increased study of the disorder did not have a dramatic effect on public opinion.
Fortunately for those who are living with fibromyalgia, it is gaining wider acceptance in the medical community and more treatments have been explored for symptom management.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (1987)
Along with fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) has been met with controversy in the public and medical spheres. It was first identified in a 1987 medical article describing a disease that resembled recurrent Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) infections, but without any compelling evidence to suggest that EBV was the cause.
There is no convincing explanation of CFS and its ability to rob otherwise healthy individuals of energy and mental health, although there have been many theories proposed in the past 30 years. Even though the identification of this disorder has led to increased funding and research on its diagnosis and management, many patients who have been diagnosed with CFS advocate retiring the name, believing it trivializes the disease.
This disorder was first mentioned in a first century medical account, and again at the turn of the 20th century. The medical community then ignored this condition for 50 years before it was presented for consideration by the International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease in 1975. In 1983 it was recognized as a symptom for an underlying cause. Research estimates that 25% of women will experience vulvodynia at some point in their lives, yet it still takes a female patient suffering from chronic genital pain an average of three doctors to receive a diagnosis and treatment approach for their underlying condition.
These diseases demonstrate how quickly our knowledge of medical conditions changes. For those who are suffering with an undiagnosed chronic condition, the answer may still be out there, and it may come within your lifetime.
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