Saturday, April 14, 2012

6 Commentary: On Dr. Phil, Lyme Disease, And "Faking It".

Yesterday a segment about chronic Lyme disease aired on the Dr. Phil Show. There's been much discussion about this episode online throughout the Lyme disease patient community, and so far comments by the hundreds have been posted rapid fire to Dr. Phil's web site about chronic Lyme disease.

I am in support of seeing more coverage on Lyme disease and patients with persisting symptoms, but I am not in support of seeing the angle of hypochrondria or "faking disease" being mentioned - even in passing - in relationship to Lyme disease.

The issue of whether or not a patient is faking their symptoms came up during an interview with a 25 year old model, Stephanie, who is experiencing unusual attacks and symptoms - and who has been accused of behaving this way in order to get attention.

While I do not know all the details of Stephanie's medical history, I would be one of the last people to accuse her of faking her symptoms to get attention. I say this in part because if she has suffered with these symptoms for five years* and hasn't been getting out much due to her condition - then like myself, she's probably discovered that after that period of time other people will stop inviting you to events. Some may not even visit.

Being a model equates with an active social life, attending events, and self-promotion. Getting plenty of attention lands you work. Becoming sick and spending most of your time at home kills your career and leads to isolation. There is little to gain there, and any initial sympathy which might be gained wears thin after the first several months. People will move on without you.

Having suffered the personal costs of isolation due to chronic illness myself, I have sympathy for her situation. And I am appalled that the first thing Dr. Phil would ask was not what evidence she had that she was suffering from Lyme disease - but to ask whether or not she was faking her symptoms.

While I disagreed with her method of self medicating, it is clear to me that she has been suffering. I've never experienced what she is calling seizures - however, earlier in my illness I had episodic attacks of severe pain which would cause me to curl up, wince, and yell with pain.

The pain was so intense there was nothing else I could do. It often happened when I was alone in bed and everyone else was out of the house. If someone wanted to accuse me of a payoff for my behavior, it wasn't coming.

It seems to be a running theme over time - this concept that if one is ill with a condition that is not easily understood or for which tests have not been well developed - then somehow the patient's symptoms must be "all in their head," or the patient must be "making it all up".

And that if a patient behaves in an unusual manner, accusations fly that they must be acting out, with others suggesting that "perhaps they have a psychological problem," or  "perhaps they just want attention."

I can't think of how many times I've heard these statements made about someone with certain medical conditions - usually conditions where the person physically appears normal to others at least some portion of the time, and isn't showing an overt sign of illness or injury.

Patients with a broken leg or weeping sores are not accused of hypochrondria or of "faking it". When a physical symptom is a daily constant and is taking time to heal, it's a concrete visual reminder to others that a person is not well.

But if someone has lesions on their brain, only their radiologist who took the MRI saw it. No one else can see them.

If someone has extreme fatigue, only they know what the experience is like to be feeling the heavy weight of that burden on their body all the time - while everyone else just sees them as someone who lies on a sofa or in bed all day and might judge them as being lazy.

If someone winces in pain at someone else turning on a lamp or children talking and laughing animatedly, everyone else may see them as being overly sensitive without knowing the experience of the person for whom sounds seem three times louder and light five times brighter.

People understand what they themselves have experienced, and people understand what they can see. Many people joke about using the Missouri license plate motto as their own personal mantra: Show me. They don't believe in something's existence unless they can see it or experience it firsthand.

But anyone with an ounce of scientific reasoning and logic can see that just because one cannot see something or experience it firsthand does not mean it doesn't exist. One can detect the presence of some agent or phenomenon through indirect detection. Much like antibodies in a blood test, one can determine infection is present without detecting the causative organism itself.

In the mid-1800s, doctors and others believed that patients' exposure to bad air in hospitals are what lead to infection in wounds. Washrooms for doctors' hands and patients' wounds were not available. Washing hands before seeing a patient was not considered necessary to avoid infection - the idea never entered one's mind.

One doctor, Dr. Joseph Lister, learned about Louis Pasteur's research that rotting and fermentation could occur under anaerobic conditions if microbes were present. By learning more about Pasteur's hypothesis as to what could prevent rotting and how this might apply to infections, Lister decided to conduct his own experiments. Even though he could not see the microbes themselves he could see the results of his research: antiseptics prevented infections in wounds fron taking hold.  

Lister went on to encourage doctors he supervised to wash their hands before surgery and use antiseptics - even though at the time doctors thought it was unnecessary and a joke at first. Nonetheless,  as time went on, others began to adopt his practices and went on to prevent many cases of infection and sepsis.

For centuries, scientists hypothesized that extrasolar planets existed. But it is difficult to directly detect them. Most extrasolar planets are detected through indirect detection methods such as measuring radial velocity or the Doppler method, by observing the drop in brightness emitted by a distant star due to a planet's transit in front of its disk, and by using several other methods. In astronomy, one can observe a number of planetary bodies' presence through the use of inference. By looking at different stars, we can infer something about the planets orbiting them - even if we can't see the planets with our own naked eye - or in some cases, even with a telescope.

These are just two examples where inference leads to association and discovery.

But here we are, in 2012, and it seems that the power of inference is somehow broken in doctors and neighbors who leap to the conclusion about patients who have symptoms they do not understand or which they have trouble offering an official diagnosis.

Like the doctors who believed patients were getting infections from bad air in the hospital without any particular data to support their conclusion - some doctors today are making snap judgments that patients' symptoms are due to their own neurotic imaginings.

The truth is, it might not be that easily determined why it is some patients are having the symptoms they do.

Instead of saying these three words, "I don't know," when there is no quick answer as to why a patient has particular symptoms, some doctors readily fall back on a psychological cause. Often without any particular training in psychology. Often without any psychological and neurological testing of the patient in front of them. Often without any rule-outs to determine if some underlying medical condition could be contributing to their patient's symptoms.

And sometimes, even with training, there is a risk their diagnosis is wrong. Because if one doctor looks through the same lens of his own area of specialization every day, sometimes it's difficult to consider presentations from a different angle.

While the debate about the cause continues, the recent outbreak of a strange rash of illnesses in upstate LeRoy, New York, could be one example of making a snap judgment based on a psychological condition.

A group of young women (and as it turned out later, one young man who didn't know them) in high school began exhibiting strange behavior last year. They have had unusual tics and verbal outbursts similar to those found in Tourette's syndrome.

They were taken to various medical professionals to be interviewed and examined, and the initial diagnosis which was offered was "conversion disorder". Conversion disorder used to be previously known as "hysteria", and before Freud used the term, hysteria was associated with people who were malingerers, had weak nerves, or had some meaningless disturbances. No reason for these behaviors was ever given back then beyond having poor character or a weak constitution.

Today, conversion disorder is not the same thing. It's not thought to be due to malingering or feigning illness - it is a genuine psychiatric disorder which is not related to any underlying neurological or infectious cause and is rooted in extreme stress and anxiety. One could argue it is a physiological and biochemical response to stress.

But given its psychological origins, some parents disagreed with this diagnosis outright - and feeling that their own kids could not have this disorder, they sought second opinions. With further investigation into biological causes for their symptoms, one doctor diagnosed a young woman in neighboring Corinth, New York, with Lyme disease and is apparently evaluating some of the students from LeRoy.

Today, months after the original outbreak, debate over what exactly is the cause of all these students' unusual symptoms has continued. One physician who treated some of the girls classified the disorder as PANDAS, related to streptococcal virus. Some of the girls got better under treatment for PANDAS. Some have not. Some doctors do not even think all the students suffer from the same condition as their individual presentations are somewhat different.

Where can anyone rest with this, with the knowledge that people that exhibit unusual behavior may not have it "all in their heads" and are not "making it up"?  And that similar symptoms might stem from different causes?

One must appreciate that sometimes it takes time to sleuth out the proper diagnosis. But one must also begin to appreciate that it is way past time to stop discriminating against people and labeling their motives and essential character as human beings if they engage in unusual behavior - whether it began with a traumatic experience or a tick bite.

Even if it turns out some of these young women have a disorder which was triggered by extreme stress, that does not mean they are faking it. It would be a genuine medical problem that requires treatment, just as PANDAS and Lyme disease need treatment.

From the infectious disease angle, this is not the only item to hit the news in recent months which brought up discussion about the possible relationship between bacteria and behavior.

Researcher Jaroslav Flegr has been investigating the relationship between infection with toxoplasmosis in people and their behavior, and already found some significant relationships. The psychological symptoms caused by toxoplasmosis are usually more subtle, so far, than what has been observed in these young women with tics and vocalizations - but they are further evidence that it is not always going to be clear if we alone are driving our behavior - or if a visiting microbe onboard is.

Other mental illnesses have been investigated for an infectious cause, such as schizophrenia - and various viruses and microbes have been implicated in or associated with its development.

Regardless of whether one diagnoses a patient with a psychological disorder or a physical condition, all of this should make us stop for a moment and think about how we as a society think about mental and physical illness in this country:  The gap between what is a biologically-based illness and what is a psychologically-based illness is closing and becoming blurred. With this change, greater acceptance and understanding of those with symptoms which affect them cognitively, neurologically, and psychologically is bound to occur.

It's been a long slow climb to work to remove the stigma that comes with mental illness in the United States. And it continues in part because of a tendency to believe that everyone has control over their own behavior. Tied very intimately to that idea is a belief that everyone has control over their bodies as well. Which is nice and a comforting thought to have, and most people who are completely healthy live with the privilege of this experience without ever experiencing anything else.

But once you have become incredibly ill, it becomes clear just how much is not under one's control. If you get into a car accident and have a spinal injury that is obvious to everyone, no one can ever tell you how long it will take to completely heal from your injury. Often it isn't clear if you'll completely heal at all.

The same applies to people who have been affected mentally - and not by choice, any more than the person who injures their spine in an accident. People who were healthy and "had it all together" can fall victim to an infection, genetic and environmental factors, temporary or permanent side effects of prescription medication, a car accident, or other traumas which leave them both physically and mentally affected.

The results are not something that is "all in their head" - if that phrase is meant to apply to an idea of them imagining it. On the contrary, having an infection or trauma which affects your brain is literally "all in your head" - and is in no way, shape, or form, imagining it. It is a harsh reality one must live with every day. It will mean not having control over your behavior and reactions to certain stimuli such as noise, light, the sense of touch, music, scents, the taste of certain foods, and then some.

To the outside observer, these reactions may seem strange. And even by the person having them, they are, and they are often aware their own reactions are atypical. But to the person who is living with them, it is what they have to live with and work around.

Antibiotics or other medications may bring their reactions under control and help. It may make life more predictable for those affected and those close to them who witness their behavior. And if anything, people who observe the change which occurs under such treatment over time should grasp that their symptoms have been due to their being ill and not because they were trying to get attention.

In regards to the practice of telling patients that a condition is imaginary, I have hoped that by 2012 we would have gotten much further by now and stopped this practice.  That we wouldn't be seeing young women in the prime of their lives with careers and hopes for the future lose all that and be told that their symptoms are only about trying to get attention by being sick.

It reminds me of stories of doctors who accused women back in the late 1800's of suffering from "hysteria" when they may have had multiple sclerosis. It reminds me of stories of doctors who accused patients in the 1980's through the present that it was "all in their heads" when they have CFS/ME. It reminds me of stories of doctors who today are saying those with chronic Lyme disease are "faking it" and aren't really sick - or perhaps they are depressed.

No doubt, depression can be a serious and debilitating condition in its own right which requires medical treatment and cannot be solved just by pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. We've moved beyond some of the stigma attached to depression and understand today that it is not a sign of poor character or laziness. But let's be sure to not confuse one disease or condition with another just because some of their symptoms overlap.

All this said, it is clear to me after having done extensive research on Lyme disease that everyone who has persisting symptoms related to Lyme disease after a tick bite and its initial treatment is not well. It's not "all in our heads"- even if for some of us the damage may be literally in our heads.

Lyme disease affects each of us somewhat differently - some of us have more neurological, cognitive, and/or psychological manifestations of disease than others. Given the pathogenesis of this disease, these differences should be no surprise: without early treatment during the acute stage, Borrelia bacteria disseminates throughout the body and can affect different organs and tissues - and at times, affects the nervous system, too.

Even if one does not believe in a model of chronic infection after initial antibiotic use, there is no reason to doubt that someone affected by this disease would have some damage done by its presence. This damage can lead to all kinds of problems of varying frequency and duration - damage which doctors should be well aware of and be attentive to just as they would for other medical conditions.

The effects of Lyme disease on people - particularly disseminated and late stage Lyme disease - are real and variable. Even if it becomes a post-infectious autoimmune condition, the damage done is real. The resulting symptoms need to be dealt with effectively. Medical societies and professionals need to step up to the plate and recognize them rather than write them off as imagined.

Related items of interest:

Dr. Phil Show In Three Parts - See the entire segment on Chronic Lyme disease.
Emory University Center for Ethics on an explanation that psychiatric illness is not imagined but a real condition - plus a mention that there is growing evidence of a biological basis for psychiatric disorders.
Economist on the pros and cons of toxoplasmosis.

* Stephanie, when interviewed on the show, stated she has had symptoms on and off for five years. According to her Twitter account and other online resources, she had a turn for the worse beginning in October 2011 and has been consistently ill since November 2011. So she hasn't yet been seriously symptomatic for the same period of time I was - let's hope she isn't.

Image Credit: 
Sick Girl, 1910 (Poland) - From under US-PD license.


  1. One thing I'd like to see the media do is interview some MEN with chronic Lyme disease. While there may be biological reasons why more women suffer from chronic Lyme disease than men, there are men out there who are suffering with a similar condition and need more air time. They are even more invisible in the middle of this controversy and have their own voice.

  2. Good Post Camp Dr Phil's initial comments seemed rather out of hand to me too as was his assertion that so many patients were faking it - perhaps in fact many of these have real underlying problems that have been missed. Where do doctors get their arrogance from. However I was pleased to see Lyme being aired on the TV and hope to see more of it and here in the UK too.
    I hope you post this post on Lyme they are collecting comments to pass along to Dr Phil

  3. Thanks, Joanne.

    I have grown tired of hearing about people faking their illnesses, either if they have conditions for which tests don't exist or are less than optimal - or if no one understands what they have in the first place. Just because a test doesn't exist for someone's condition and many test results are normal doesn't mean something isn't wrong.

    I feel for this young woman, Stephanie. She's had a rough time of it. I don't condone her use of nitrous oxide for pain on a number of levels - it can do serious brain damage and deplete the body of B12, and in serious cases lead to an outbreak of shingles. If one is already immune suppressed or fighting off another infection, then nitrous is a pretty bad choice.

    I'm relieved she will be seeing a new doctor now who will treat her pro bono. I imagine under her care, the use of nitrous is going stop immediately. I hope she is on the road to getting her health back now.

    I already posted a comment to about the show and linked back to this entry. Last I looked it was still under moderation and not posted yet.

    I'm glad Dr. Phil informed more people about chronic Lyme disease, but I would have liked to have seen it done somewhat differently and to have some guys on the show. I'd also like to see more discussion about scientific research on Lyme disease and how it relates to the controversy.

  4. Correction to the above: I have grown tired of hearing accusations about people faking their illnesses...

  5. General comment to readers passing through:

    A lot of people who are finding this page using google used keywords such as "Dr. Phil Stephanie faking" or asked a question such as "Is Stephanie with Lyme disease faking her seizures?". I wanted to take the time to offer my opinion on her seizures.

    First of all, I'm not a doctor. So I am not qualified to tell you or anyone else what Stephanie's seizures are all about. Only she knows and her doctor knows what the deal is with her seizures. They are the best people to ask.

    So what follows is speculation, and is based on what is known about seizures which have characteristics similar to the ones Stephanie has:

    People can and have had the kind of seizures where they are conscious and only a portion of the brain is affected called simple partial seizures. The person having them may be able to vocalize and remember their seizure as they are having them. These seizures often start in one part of the brain and spread to another, though, and at that point the person can no longer speak and can lose consciousness.

    There are forms of frontal lobe epilepsy which can produce the following presentation based on part of the brain affected...

    Medial frontal, cingulate gyrus, orbitofrontal, or frontopolar regions of the brain where seizures occur can lead to symptoms such as agitation, involuntary gesturing, strong emotions, repetitive motions such as pedaling and thrashing, vocalizations, laughing, and crying. These seizures often seem bizarre and may be diagnosed incorrectly as psychogenic.

    Which leaves us with the last kind of seizure where someone can be conscious and capable of vocalization - psychogenic seizures.

    Psychogenic seizures are psychological or somatic in origin. However, don't let the usage of the word, "psychological" mislead you into thinking these are fake seizures. They are not fake. They do not have an electrical origin that epileptic seizures have. And oddly enough, 10-30% of people who have psychogenic seizures have epileptic seizures as well.


    These psychogenic seizures - while psychological in origin - are involuntary. They are not under the patient's control, and thus cannot be faked.

    A medical professional would have a better handle on what kind of seizure she is having, and also know more specifics as to how Lyme disease might play a role in it.

    * Note: Some of the above links take you to medscape, which have excellent articles on seizures of which content cannot be reprinted here due to copyright. They can, however, be accessed and read by signing up for an account with free registration.

  6. Resource related to this post:

    If someone has $34.95 to spend on Springerlink, you can download an electronic version of this paper:

    Daniela Krause, Judith Matz, Elif Weidinger, Jenny Wagner, Agnes Wildenauer, Michael Obermeier, Michael Riedel and Norbert Müller. Association between intracellular infectious agents and Tourette’s syndrome. EUROPEAN ARCHIVES OF PSYCHIATRY AND CLINICAL NEUROSCIENCE. Volume 260, Number 4, 359-363, DOI: 10.1007/s00406-009-0084-3


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