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.

Toddler’s Strep Throat Triggers Neurological Autoimmune Disease

Nate Kenoe, pictured above, developed a frightening autoimmune disease after strep throat

Nate Kenoe was a vibrant, energetic 4-year-old boy. Unfortunately, he had had a string of illnesses, testing positive for strep throat five times over the course of eight months. Each time, it wasn’t immediately clear that Nate had strep throat- oftentimes, he didn’t even have a sore throat! Instead, he presented with less common symptoms, such as bad breath or a sore on his butt. When he would finally get diagnosed with strep throat, he had to take a less effective antibiotic treatment, due to his allergy to penicillin.

Eventually, Nate developed even more disturbing symptoms that weren’t in line with strep throat. He began to have sensory issues, feeling pains in his feet as if he were walking on rocks, experiencing coldness in his shoulders, and other tics. He also had dramatically changed behavior, including vomiting at the sight of food, urinating multiple times an hour and banging his head.

Thankfully, an attentive pediatrician recognized Nate’s symptoms as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infection, known as PANDAS for short. PANDAS is a little-known autoimmune disease primarily occurring in children between the ages of 3 and 12. With this disease, strep throat opens the blood-brain barrier, allowing abnormal immune cells to enter the brain and cause neuro inflammation. It has been compared to autoimmune encephalitis (AE), another autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder.

The PANDAS network estimates that 1 in 200 children could have PANDAS; however, this autoimmune condition is often under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed due to its similarity with other conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Nate’s own mother, a pediatric nurse, hadn’t even heard of the condition before.

Nate received antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications and had a surgery to remove his tonsils as a treatment for his PANDAS. As her son received treatment, his mother learned that PANDAS is in fact a controversial disease. Many physicians are skeptical that this autoimmune disease even exists, while others believe that there needs to be a standardized method for diagnosis and treatment.

One year later, Nate is faring much better than last year. However, if he gets sick, such as with a cold or virus, it will trigger another autoimmune ‘flare’ resulting in more sensory issues. Ultimately, Nate’s family hopes that by sharing his story, they can raise awareness about PANDAS, and in turn, help the disease get more research funding.

To learn more about PANDAS and Nate’s story, click here.

How Chronic Illness Can Kill Your Self-Esteem

Chronic Illness and Self-Esteem

I recently read a post on Reddit on the r/autoimmunity subreddit titled ‘Losing Everything‘. In the post, the author describes being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune condition affecting one’s moisture-producing glands. The author has also been living with other autoimmune diseases, including Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (GPA), for quite some time.

She goes on to say that since being diagnosed with these conditions, she feels like she is losing everything that makes her ‘herself’. For example, she is an artist, but she has lost the use of her dominant hand as a result of her conditions, leading her to quit her art. She also had a unique style, with beautiful thick hair and piercings. However, most of her hair has now fallen out and she had to remove her piercings due to constant infections.

The author’s post made me think of my own struggle with chronic illness and how having Sjogren’s Syndrome, Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS) and Benign Fasciculation Syndrome (BFS) has impacted my sense of self.

Although I have both good days and bad days, I often resent my body and these diseases for what they have ‘taken away’ from my life. I often think to myself, what would I have accomplished by now had it not been for this disease? Would I be further along in my career? My education? Would I have more social connections and deeper friendships? It’s hard to quantify, but I feel like my life would have been very different had I not developed autoimmune issues. In other words, I don’t feel like I can be my true ambitious self because of my chronic illnesses.

I could also relate to the author’s mention of her outward appearance, like her hair and piercings. I notice that I often think ‘why bother?’ when it comes to things like fashion and beauty, which were important to me before my diagnosis. I think this is because I’ve adopted the mindset that I am ‘diseased’, so why bother to look nice? This is definitely a negative mindset that I’m continuing to work on, but, I think it’s important to acknowledge how chronic illness can impact your sense of self- whether it’s your own self-image, or even your outward appearance.

I also recently read a powerful testimony on The Mighty by Megan Klenke titled, ‘How Chronic Illness Can Drastically Affect Your Self-Esteem’. In her post, she describes the shame that many individuals with chronic conditions and disabilities face, such as having to ask for help to do tasks that they once did independently, using a wheelchair, or dealing with embarrassing side effects of medications. Furthermore, Megan also points out that simple things like missing family functions or get-togethers with friends as a result of illness can make one feel left out and like an ‘awful’ family member or friend.

A YouTuber I follow named Samantha Wayne also created a video detailing her struggle with the impact of lupus on her self-image. She ended up being hospitalized and had to take time off to rest. During this time, she says she felt useless and like she wasn’t doing enough. Also, she had to step back from her job because being on her feet all day was taking a toll on her health. The medications she was taking, such as prednisone, also impacted her outward appearance.

Samantha did say that leaning on her support system has helped her to get through negative feelings about her self-worth. She also says that realizing that everyone is worthy, regardless of their health status, has also helped. Furthermore, she says that while her disease caused her to lose certain hobbies, like competitive basketball, she was able to adopt new hobbies and learn new skills such as video blogging on her YouTube channel, which she started in order to raise awareness about lupus. Finally, she says that practicing gratitude for the things she can do and what she has is another way that has helped to overcome her low self-esteem.

Has having a chronic illness impacted your self-confidence, and if so, how have you handled it? Let us know in the comments below!

Related Blog Posts: