What is Medical Gaslighting?

“Maybe it’s just all in my head?”

That was the question Isabella Rosario asked herself after unsuccessfully trying to get a diagnosis for her numerous debilitating symptoms for over a year-long period. These concerning symptoms included migraines, joint dislocations, chest pain, lightheadedness, pneumonia and more. When she first saw a doctor at her university clinic, and later, her GP, she was told what she was experiencing was due to stress related to her studies, and completely psychological in nature. Eventually, after seeing numerous specialists, she was diagnosed with two chronic health conditions – hypermobility spectrum disorder (HPD) and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). 

Isabella was fortunate to eventually get a diagnosis, but other chronic illness sufferers are not so lucky. Many medical professionals routinely dismiss their patients’ ailments and concerns – a phenomenon known as medical gaslighting. Eventually, patients who have been gaslit will begin to question their own sanity and wonder if their health problems are actually ‘real’ or just a figment of their own imagination.

According to the blog A Journey Through the Fog, medical gaslighting can take many forms, including:

  • Minimizing debilitating or dangerous symptoms. – “Your pain can’t be that bad
  • Blaming symptoms on mental illness. – “It’s all in your head” 
  • Assuming a diagnosis based on sex, race, identity, age, gender, ethnicity or weight. – “If you lost weight, your symptoms would disappear
  • Refusing to order important tests or imaging work. – “I know you don’t have [condition], I do not need an MRI to tell me this. I know how to do my job
  • Refusing to discuss the health issues with the patient. Berating patients for trying to self-diagnose. – “Who’s the doctor here, me or Google?” 

Throughout the course of my journey to being diagnosed with various autoimmune diseases and chronic illnesses, including Sjogren’s Syndrome, Hidradenitis Suppurativa and Benign Fasciculation Syndrome, my symptoms were either minimized or completely discounted by medical professionals. As I detail in the blog post, When Your Doctor Doesn’t Believe You, when I first brought up joint pain in my hands to my GP at age 19, he accused me of ‘texting too much’ when in reality, I had undiagnosed Sjogren’s Syndrome that was quickly developing into Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).

In another instance, I needed a referral to see a Rheumatologist. When the nurse checked me in and asked about the reason for the visit, she said, ‘How does someone your age need to see a Rheumatologist? Did you wear high heels too much in high school?’ This kind of comment is not only rude and uncalled for, but patronizing and dismissive as well. People of all ages can experience a myriad of health issues, and should be taken seriously.

Last year, a video posted by a nurse on the popular social media platform TikTok drew outrage among the chronic illness community. The video featured a nurse imitating a patient struggling to breathe, while the nurse refused to help. She then captioned the video with the words: “We know when y’all are faking’. The video prompted many chronic illness patients to respond recounting their own stories of medical gaslighting, using the hashtag #PatientsAreNotFaking.

According to healthline.com, women are more likely to have their pain described as ’emotional’ or psychological in nature. Meanwhile, patients of color are less likely to be thoroughly examined as compared to their white counterparts. This systemic sexism and racism in the healthcare industry was also pointed out by many using the same hashtag:

In order for patients to get the healthcare they need (and deserve), medical professionals need to take their patients seriously; and that includes listening to their experiences, being compassionate, and issuing the necessary examinations and other tests needed to get an accurate diagnosis. My hope is that if you’ve ever experienced medical gaslighting, that you remain assertive and find a healthcare team that will take the necessary action to diagnose and treat your illness.

Have you experienced medical gaslighting before? If so, comment below to share your experience.

10 Facts About Hidradenitis Suppurativa

According to the Hidrandenitis Suppurativa (HS) Foundation, HS is a chronic, painful skin disease that causes boils to form in the folds of the skin and has a profound impact on quality of life. Read out to find out 10 facts about this chronic autoimmune condition.

1. Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS) is a common disease

Although HS was once thought to be a rare disease, peer-reviewed medical journals have stated that HS affects approximately 1-4% of the world’s population, when taking into account all the stages of the disease. This means that there are millions of individuals living with this skin condition.

2. It affects certain areas of the skin

HS commonly occurs in the areas of the skin that rub together, such as the armpits (axillae), groin, buttocks, and underneath the breasts. These areas are rich in apocrine glands, which produce sweat, and have many hair follicles which can get obstructed. These obstructed follicles will then progress into pus-filled abscesses and boils. The boils can feel like hard lumps, or clusters of inflamed lesions and sinus tracts (called ‘tunnels’) which give off chronic seepage and can scar.

3. HS is classified into three stages

HS is classified into three stages called Hurley Staging. This classification method allows medical professionals to assign a severity level to HS. The three stages are:

  • Hurley stage I – a single lesion without a sinus tract (‘tunnel’) formation
  • Hurley stage II – multiple lesions or areas impacted, but with limited tunneling
  • Hurley stage III – multiple lesions involving an entire area of the body, with more extensive sinus tract formations and scarring.

Keep in mind that these stages don’t necessarily take into account disease activity, measure pain, or the impact on one’s quality of life.

4. There are several risk factors

The exact cause of HS is unknown. However, experts believe that the condition is connected to hormones, genetics, and autoimmune issues. HS is not caused by an infection or poor hygiene, and it isn’t contagious.

Though the exact cause isn’t known, there are a number of risk factors that can increase one’s likelihood of developing the disease, including:

  • Sex – Women are about three times more likely to develop HS than men.
  • Age – HS most commonly occurs in women between the ages of 18 and 29. It rarely occurs before puberty, though individuals who develop the condition at an early age may be at an increased risk of developing more widespread disease.
  • Family history – It’s believed that inherited genes may play a role.

5. Lifestyle factors also impact the disease

There are also lifestyle factors that can impact the disease, including:

  • Obesity – Several studies have shown a correlation between being overweight and HS. This may be due to increased friction on one’s body and being more prone to excessive perspiration.
  • Smoking – Smoking tobacco has been linked to HS as well.

As a result, it’s recommended for patients to maintain a healthy weight and to refrain from smoking.

6. HS can cause various complications

Persistent HS, especially when severe, can cause a number of complications, including skin infections and scars. The scarring can also interfere with lymph drainage, which can result in swelling in the arms, legs, or genital region. Sores and scar tissue can also restrict one’s movements, or make it too painful to move, especially when the disease impacts the armpits or groin area.

7. HS can also impact one’s mental health

HS can also impact one’s self-esteem and well being. For example, the location of the skin lesions, as well as issues like drainage, scarring, and malodorous smell can cause embarrassment, and make patients reluctant to go out in public or engage in activities that may reveal their skin, such as swimming. The resulting social isolation can lead to overwhelming sadness or even depression. In fact, many patients with HS go undiagnosed for years because they are too ashamed to speak with a health care provider about their symptoms.

8. HS occurs in tandem with several conditions

According to the HS Foundation, research has found that certain health conditions (called ‘comorbidities’) commonly occur in tandem with HS. These conditions include metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, acne, and more. HS is sometimes referred to in other countries as ‘acne inversa’, although it isn’t a type of acne.

9. There is no cure, but treatments can help

Treatment for HS depends on what clinical stage a patient is in and the severity of their condition. Mild HS is treated with antibacterial soaps, anti-inflammatory medications, and warm compresses. It’s also recommended to wear loose-fitting clothing. More severe forms of the disease may require antibiotics, oral retinoids, anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, hormones, and TNF-alpha inhibitors. Other treatments include laser hair removal, radiation therapy, carbon dioxide laser therapy and surgery to remove the affected area.

10. There is hope

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Hidradenitis Suppurativa, visit the Hope for HS website, which has an extensive library of patient resources, including information about wound care and listings for nationwide support groups. The organization also lists out clinical trials that patients can participate in, as well as recent research and news items, so that you can stay on top of the latest developments about the disease.

Thank you for stopping by Autoimmune Warrior. If this article was informative to you, please like, share and comment below!

Young Autoimmune Patients Raise Awareness Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe, young patients with autoimmune disease and other chronic illnesses are using the hashtag #HighRiskCovid19 to raise awareness about their conditions.

Although many media outlets and government officials have stated that young individuals need not worry about the coronavirus, and that it’s primarily older individuals who are the most at risk, immunocompromised young people are telling their own story. Whether they take immunosuppressants for their condition, or are at risk due to the nature of their chronic illness, these patients are asking their peers to keep them in mind when they consider venturing out instead of remaining in self-isolation.

Brittania, a 20-year old young woman from Jamaica, tweeted: ‘Hi, I’m 20 and I have Systemic Lupus Erythmatosus (SLE)/Lupus Nephritis. I take immunosuppressants to keep my body from attacking itself. I’m amongst those who have to self-isolate to stay healthy for a majority of this year. So please keep me/others in mind when you think you ‘can’t stay in’.

Sarah Elliott, from San Francisco, California, added: ‘I have multiple sclerosis (MS) and take an immunosuppressant drug for it. I also have severe asthma and take a controller medication as well. I have 2 kids and I would love to watch them grow up. Please help protect us!’

Nancy Mendoza, an autoimmune patient with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), also tweeted: ‘I’ve been on immunosuppressing meds for 15 years for rheumatoid arthritis. Stay home. Flatten the curve. People like me are depending on you.’

Others decided to use the trending hashtag to raise awareness on behalf of a loved one with a chronic illness. A man from Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, for example, implored: ‘This is my wife. She is on immunosuppressive infusion therapy battling ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis. She is among the high risk during this COVID-19 pandemic. I’m putting a face to the most vulnerable. TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY.’

Personally, I am also taking greater precautions as the coronavirus spreads further into our communities, since I take immunosupressant medication for Sjogren’s Syndrome and Hidradenitis Suppurativa. I also have asthma, which puts me at a greater risk for serious pulmonary complications, like pneumonia, since the virus is respiratory in nature. Thankfully, I’m able to work remotely, limiting my exposure to others, and my husband has taken on any duties that require us to set foot outside, including grocery shopping.

Do you or someone you love have an autoimmune disease, and are therefore at a greater risk for complications associated with the coronavirus? If so, please comment below and let us know how you’re handling this public health scare as a #HighRiskCovid19 patient.