Why doctors must stop disbelieving women’s symptoms and institutions must do more research on diseases that primarily affect women.
By Jennifer Brea
December 27, 2017
Five years ago, at a restaurant in Cambridge, my waitress brought me the check. I stared at the signature line, pen in hand, and froze. I was 28 years old, a Harvard PhD student studying political economy and statistics, and I had forgotten how to write my own name.
More than a year before, my temperature had spiked to 104.7. I thought I had a bad flu. After the fever subsided, I kept getting common ailments: sore throats, sinus infections, low-grade fevers. Except I would wind up in bed, inexplicably dizzy, for days on end. After the restaurant incident, I got to the point where I could leave my house only in a wheelchair. Some days, I did not have the strength to lift my head.
Seeking answers, and care, I would eventually see a dozen specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s. All of their tests came back normal. As my symptoms grew in complexity, my doctors started to use words like “anxiety” or “depression.” On instinct, I started taking my then fiance, now husband, Omar, to my appointments. (I thought I might be treated better if I had a male witness.) Then a neurologist gave me a diagnosis: Conversion disorder, which prior to 1980 was called “hysteria.”
In other words, it was all in my head.
So I tested the hypothesis, walking the mile from the clinic to home, ignoring the pain in my legs. Once home, I collapsed. My brain and my spinal cord felt like they were burning. I was bedridden for months, and have never been the same since.
It turned out I have myalgic encephalomyelitis, ME, more commonly called chronic fatigue syndrome. An estimated 1 million Americans have it. Twenty-five percent are homebound or bedridden and 75 percent can’t work. And yet every day I hear from patients with ME who struggled to receive a diagnosis. On average ME patients need five years to get diagnosed, and many sufferers report spending much of that time being told their symptoms are psychological. In general, women are 2 to 10 times more likely than men to receive a diagnosis of hysteria. And while globally, ME affects millions of men, 80 percent of people who have it are women.
The phenomenon of disbelieving women’s symptoms extends far beyond ME. Forty-five percent of patients with autoimmune disorders — the majority of whom are women — are initially told they are hypochondriacs before being accurately diagnosed.
We endure such waits, I believe, not because my disease is inherently inscrutable but because we have chosen not to invest in understanding it. For more than a decade, ME has received just $5 to $6 per patient annually in research funding from the National Institutes of Health, the second lowest of any disease for which NIH reports categorical funding. (The lowest, fibromyalgia, has a patient population that is 90 percent female.) Less than a third of medical schools even incorporate ME into their curricula. You cannot find answers to the questions you don’t ask — or don’t fund.
Here’s what we do know: The disease is frequently triggered by an infection, and many symptoms, including dizziness, appear or worsen when a person stands up (doctors call this orthostatic intolerance). ME patients have immune abnormalities, and some may have an autoimmune disease. We also have a defect that limits our metabolic ability to convert sugar into energy. ME’s hallmark feature is “post-exertional malaise” — after cognitive or physical exertion, every system of the body is affected so severely by symptoms that we call it a “crash.”
I’m lucky. I got diagnosed and have improved with treatment. I was able to give a TED Talk and, from bed, make a documentary, Unrest, about my experience. I can leave my house now, albeit in a wheelchair. But complete recovery from ME is rare.
When I first got sick, I thought maybe I had a rare disease — something doctors had simply never seen. Then I came to understand I was part of a community of millions living with ME who had been systematically disbelieved and marginalized. What I now know is that around the world, hundreds of millions live with autoimmune diseases. These are often complex, difficult-to-diagnose conditions that modern medicine is ill-equipped to treat. They disproportionately affect women and their incidence is rising. We need to band together across the borders of our diagnoses to build a movement for more investment in research and better care.
And in the meantime, it’s important that doctors tempted to offer a patient a psychological cause for their symptoms stop and ask themselves about the assumptions they might be making based on gender. Conversion disorder affects perhaps 14 to 22 people out of 100,000, so the chances a doctor will ever see a patient with it are not high. It would be far better, when confronted with a puzzle that defies diagnosis, to say, “I don’t know.” For patients like me, those words can be as lifesaving as medicine.
Jennifer Brea is a health activist and filmmaker whose 2017 documentary, “Unrest,” is on the short list for an Academy Award It premieres on PBS January 8.