Iconic folk singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell was hospitalized Tuesday after being found unconscious at her Los Angeles home. She has yet to disclose the cause, but Mitchell, 71, has discussed a number of health complaints in recent years, including Morgellons disease — a mysterious illness that has been the subject of ongoing debate among medical researchers and patients.
People who believe they have Morgellons say it’s characterized by an array of skin symptoms, including sores, a crawling sensation either on or under the skin, and what the Mayo Clinic describes as “fiber-like filaments emerging from the sores.”
Morgellons is not a medically accepted diagnosis and researchers have not definitively determined where the fibers come from. Some have found evidence that the filaments are merely cotton from clothing or bandages that stick to the wounds, but others suggest the fibers are somehow produced by the body, according to Newsweek.
“Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral,” Mitchell told The Los Angeles Times in 2010.
In her memoir, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, the songwriter, who famously survived polio as a child, described how Morgellons symptoms have affected her: “I couldn’t wear clothing. I couldn’t leave my house for several years. Sometimes it got so I’d have to crawl across the floor. My legs would cramp up, just like a polio spasm. It hit all of the places where I had polio.”
In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a comprehensive investigation into 115 San Francisco Bay Area patients who comprised a cluster of Morgellons cases. CDC investigators found some similarities, but no underlying cause.
Most of those who were studied fit the profile of a white woman in middle age, who reports overall fair to poor health. A majority reported chronic fatigue and displayed some cognitive impairments, such as memory loss or attention deficit. A significant percentage had symptoms of depression and signs of “preoccupation” with health. Half tested positive for at least one illicit or prescription drug — including amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids, cocaine, opiates and propoxyphene. (Many drugs include the sensation of skin-crawling as a side effect.)
“No parasites or mycobacteria were detected,” the CDC researchers reported. “Most materials collected from participants’ skin were composed of cellulose, likely of cotton origin.” They concluded the disorder was psychosomatic. And, as The New York Times pointed out, it potentially is a manifestation of a well-known psychiatric condition: delusional infestation, in which patients erroneously believe their skin is infested with bugs.
Many who identify as Morgellons patients reject this label, including Mitchell. “In America, the Morgellons is always diagnosed as ‘delusion of parasites,’ and they send you to a psychiatrist,” Mitchell said. “I’m actually trying to get out of the music business to battle for Morgellons sufferers to receive the credibility that’s owed to them.”
But, as Torie Bosche pointed out at Slate at the time of the CDC report, the researchers didn’t say Morgellons doesn’t exist. “Psychosomatic does not mean they are “faking it”; it just means there is no medical cause,” Bosche said. She continued:
The reluctance to accept the CDC study’s results highlights the different ways society views medical conditions and psychological conditions. If we treated them equally, a psychosomatic diagnosis would not bother patients so much; but because of the stigma of mental illness, people are loath to accept such a diagnosis.
Of course, that’s little comfort to people who believe they’re suffering from the disease. Indeed, coverage of Mitchell’s illness has focused on whether Morgellons is real, perhaps undermining her own efforts to gain credibility for people with who think they have the condition.